Children With Autism 'Fall Off the Cliff' After Graduation

PHOTO: Janet Mino has taught her class of young autistic men for four years at Newarks JFK High School. But as they age out of the system, they have few options.
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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 the heart of one of the poorest cities in America, 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 ABCNews.com. "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, a whirling dervish of enthusiasm and warmth, 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."

Director Samantha Buck ["21 Below"] 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 ABCNews.com 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."

Today, an estimated 1 in 50 U.S. school-age children are diagnosed with some form of autism, a number that has been on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the filmmakers said they did not want to focus on the "causes of autism and why."

"Here are these human beings and they live in our world and are part of our society," said Buck. "How do we integrate this huge population into our society?"

While on the festival circuit, Buck noticed the industry's interest in films about autism.

"I pretty much cried at every single one," said Buck. "They were predominantly centered around young Caucasian families with money."

The filmmakers looked for an inner-city school that would tell a different story. With the help of Menendez, they found JFK High School, where they followed Mino's students.

But funding is just part of the problem. Many of her students come from dysfunctional families that are challenged by poverty and lack of support.

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