Shhhhh…Wanna know the best kept secret during the last couple days of the Montclair Film Festival? A packed audience at MKA’s high school auditorium discovered it on Saturday when they turned out for the premier of Best Kept Secret, a riveting documentary that follows the extraordinary work of Montclair’s Janet Mino and her 2012 graduating class of autistic students at Newark’s JFK High School. JFK has offered special needs education for more than 40 years to students ages 10-21.
Best Kept Secret chronicles the challenging lives of several students in Mino’s class and her efforts to find suitable programs and work for her students after graduation. At age 21, when most autistic students leave the educational system, experts call it “falling off the cliff,” when future options are limited and often very bleak. During the documentary, Mino goes above and beyond, with lots of smiles and enthusiasm, visiting students’ homes, talking to parents, gaining a better understanding of her student’s unique needs and visiting facilities to ask sometimes tough questions about whether their needs will be met after graduation. In some cases, she finds what she believes to be inadequate programs, and the student’s parents are faced with tough decisions. The film premiered at the Independent Film Festival in Boston last week where it won the audience award for a documentary. Saturday was the first time the documentary was shown in New Jersey.
NJ Senator Robert Menendez, an advocate for autism awareness who has proposed legislation on behalf of autistic adults, attended the screening and told the audience, some of whom were students and families in the film, that there is still a lot of work to be done for families with children on the autism spectrum, but he credited Janet Mino’s work as a positive step toward shining a light on the problem.
“Janet Mino exemplifies what an extraordinary educator can mean to children,” Menendez said. “These are our neighbors, these are our families, these are our fellow citizens. I think Best Kept Secret will be a secret no more. I think it will be a game changer.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Jersey has the second highest rate of autism in the country. Experts say the autism incidence could be as high as one in 49 children. Research indicates it is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, although its exact origins are unknown.
After the screening, friends and parents encouraged Mino to press on for stronger programs and greater assistance for those on the autism spectrum.
Mary Mendez, an aunt to an 18 year old with autism, said there need to be opportunities for adults with autism that allow for greater learning and focus.
“We need universities and colleges,” said Mendez. “They should one day be able to be autistic and be president.”
Despite the challenges, Mino vows to keep fighting for the cause and hopes to one day open a center of her own.
“It was very hard seeing myself first in the film. I see certain things. But it’s become easier,” Mino says.
According to the film’s producer Danielle DiGiacomo, they have received many emails and there is now greater awareness about possible legislation. The film will be shown at a congressional screening in June.
“We think this is just the beginning,” says DiGiacomo. “We’re just starting and we think this film will have a great life.”
Best Kept Secret airs on PBS’ POV on September 23 at 10 pm. For more information or to donate, visit bestkeptsecretfilm.com.