(NEW YORK) — For four years, Janet Mino has worked with her young men, preparing them to graduate from JFK High School, a place that caters to those with special needs in Newark, N.J.
All six of them have the severest form of autism, struggling to communicate, but Mino’s high-energy style evokes a smile, a hug and real progress.
Much of the work that she does may ultimately unravel because after these young men earn their diplomas, their future options are bleak — lingering at home, being placed in an institution or living on the streets.
New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the nation and some of the best intervention resources. But after graduation, programs are scarce.
“They are adults longer than they are children,” Mino, 46, told ABC News. “We need to give them a light. It’s up to us and up to me.”
“There’s nothing — nothing out there,” she said.
Mino is the subject of a documentary, Best Kept Secret, that recently premiered at the Independent Film Festival in Boston and will be shown at this weekend’s Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey.
Mino’s efforts to find resources for her students are Herculean in a school that is touted as the state’s “best kept secret.” Her efforts are exacerbated by poverty and lack of funding, but her classroom is a happy place as she finds ways to reinforce that they are capable and worthy.
“I look at it as a challenge — if I can get them as independent as possible,” she said. “They are so wonderful. They make you laugh. … They just think differently.
“Some people think that because they are nonverbal and can’t communicate, they can’t understand, but that’s not true. From my experience, they read us better than we read them,” Mino said.
Director Samantha Buck and producer Danielle DiGiacomo, who is manager of video distribution at the Orchid, follow Mino and her students in their hardscrabble lives for 18 months leading up to their 2012 graduation.
“Autism is part of who we are as a society,” said Buck, 30. “Across the country, young adults who turn 21 are pushed out of the school system. They often end up with nowhere to go; they simply disappear from productive society. This is what educators call ‘falling off the cliff.'”
This year alone, 50,000 children with autism will turn 18, according to Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who has sponsored federal legislation to provide funding for adult programs. Within two years of high school, less than half of those with autism spectrum disorder have paying jobs — the lowest rate of any disabled group.
“Meanwhile, adults with ASD run the highest risk of total social disengagement,” Menendez told ABC News in an email. “By the time they are in their early 20s, they risk losing the daily living skills they developed as children through supportive services.”
“Their families still need support,” he said. “The challenges they face will not disappear but only grow greater, and ultimately we will all pay the price for that.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Tal Kopan and Jeremy Diamond, CNN
David Goldman, CNN
Sandee LaMotte, CNN
Jacqueline Howard, CNN