It might occur to people who see teachers working tirelessly with autistic students that they would tend to burn out and that, in order to avoid burning out, they would make every effort to detach from the students they have grown to love after working with them for many years.
But those people would be wrong when it comes to the best teachers out there for autistic children. We need more of them, too, as the number of children born with autism spectrum disorders is increasing. Their abilities vary widely, and the range—which runs from very low functioning to very high functioning—is poorly understood. Today about 2 percent of all children born in America could be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The need for early intervention is palpable, as is the hunt for a cure, but this film, refreshingly, is about another side of autism: the lives of low-functioning autistic students who grow up.
Enter Janet Mino, who works with young autistic men at the John F Kennedy School in Newark, N.J., and whose 20 years of teaching experience were ably showcased in the documentary Best Kept Secret by director Samantha Buck and producer Danielle DiGiacomo. The film played at the AFI (American Film Institute) DOCS festival Thursday and today in Silver Spring, Md. All three main players were on hand for a question-and-answer session after the screening, but as with any artistic endeavor, we limit our analysis to the actual work of art. It will air on PBS in September; check local listings.
The film is named for the way the receptionist at the school answers the phone: “You’ve reached John F Kennedy High School, Newark’s best-kept secret.” It follows the lives of six young men who are low-functioning autistic. Their verbalization abilities vary a little, but all six have great difficulty expressing themselves using words or any other form of communication. Devices such as a speech synthesizer help in some cases, but they aren’t very useful for general communication, such as that needed on a job at Burger King, where one of the students begins working.
All six of Ms Mino’s students turned 21 during the 2011-2012 school year, so they “aged out” of the public school system with their graduation at the end of that academic year. As the school’s social worker, Cynthia Pullen Thompson, said, when adults age out of the system—or fall off the cliff, as it’s called—many resources simply vanish from their lives. They enter, in effect, an economy that treats them like consumers, making most private living arrangements inaccessible due to either an inability to pay or medical or drug problems in their families’ homes.
In terms of movie-making, the conflict in the story focuses on Ms Mino’s dilemma. About 18 months before her students fall off the cliff, she begins evaluating alternative adult programs to continue their care going forward. One, known as the WAE Center, offers an excellent and stimulating setting for her students, such as an art studio, but offers no transportation and inconvenient hours. Another adult center, Birchwood, provides transportation but has the adults participate in activities like robots or factory workers where the absence of interaction means they don’t develop communication skills. Ms Mino predicted parents would choose Birchwood because of the transportation and convenient hours, and because, “A lot of parents, they’re looking for a babysitter.”
But despite the convenience, she concluded Birchwood would not help her students maintain the learning she had spent so much time on. Autistic students need consistency, which comes from repetition, she explained. Many times, simply failing to provide reinforcement for a learned task for just a single day means the student will forget the task he learned by the next day. One of the most eye-opening sequences in the film came as one student who had made good progress in terms of his verbal abilities fell back to mostly nonverbal behavior after working at a job where he didn’t have to communicate with other people. This led Ms Mino to a feeling of what seemed like despair on camera, though that is not her character.
“With some of them, if you miss a day, it’s like starting all over again,” she said. One superficial tug-of-war in the movie, between Ms Mino and Ms Pullen Thompson, the social worker, had the latter suggesting Ms Mino needed to “let go” and accept the circumstances that autistic adults may only be able to master robotic tasks in the workforce. “That’s not who they are,” the special educator pushed back. This sequence stands as one of the film’s finest moments of documentary editing.
“I wanted him to be normal … quote, quote, quote,” one student’s father said on camera about his son. But things got better, he added, “once I accepted him for who he is.”
“By accepting them for who they are, they can all function in society,” Ms Mino added in that brief question-and-answer session. She has opened her own center, which is now an incubator of sorts, in order to continue providing resources needed by autistic adults as they age out of the public schools but still need to reinforce learning on a regular basis so they don’t lose it. They need communication work and money-management skills, she noted. Many existing centers, she found, stop short in some important way of meeting the needs of autistic adults.
The group continues to push for legislation that provides assistance for autistic adults after they age out of the public schools. More information should be available on the Best Kept Secret website.