Autism Speaks' Kerry Magro interviewed Danielle DiGiacomo (Producer), Samantha Buck (Director), and Janet Mino (Teacher) about their new autism documentary “Best Kept Secret”. The film looks at John F. Kennedy High School in Newark, New Jersey, where six young adults with autism are about to graduate. Janet, a special needs teacher, has been working with these adults for the past four years with the hope of helping them find a place to thrive as they age out of the school system.
The film premiered on PBS on September 23rd.
Kerry Magro: Hi Danielle, Samantha, and Janet. We appreciate you taking a few minutes out today to talk with us more about your film! First off, can you tell us how the film came together?
Samantha: While on the film festival circuit for my first documentary I saw most of the autism films were centered on Caucasian children and I was curious about the other side of autism. I started doing research about public schools. I have a friend at a self-contained classroom in a New York City public school, and through my research I met a mother in the Bronx who was saying that adults with autism were “falling off the cliff” where they would have nowhere to go once they aged out of school.
The film then shifted. I wanted to find a classroom in an inner city area, which had a few adults with autism. I found JFK High School in Newark on Google and had a connection with Senator Menendez’s office from there. We were then able to find a teacher in Janet Mino who just truly cared about her kids and they were all aging out so it made for a perfect story.
KM: How was it filming in the school? Has their been feedback so far from the area?
Danielle: The school was very accepting; the principal, Dr. Johnson-Green, basically said any teacher any classroom, feel free to come in and film. It was like that for the entire year and a half we were filming. Janet Mino is a spectacular person but everyone in the school had such great warmth and energy and were just so welcoming. (The film) gave a very honest portrayal of the school and its students. We hope that this school gets the attention it deserves.
Samantha: Danielle said it all. Everyone was very warming. The one thing that I think could make a big difference is if they were given more resources to help everyone including those with autism.
KM: Janet, you obviously played a big part in your student’s education. Did you always know you wanted to be a teacher?
Janet Mino: I actually wanted to be a dancer originally. I was just getting separated and I wanted a job where I could be at home when my kids were home. That’s when I started working at Sawtelle Learning Center in Montclair. I worked in their preschool. I was working with a young boy who had autism and was nonverbal and I taught him his first words. The impact was amazing. That was when I first fell in love with individuals with autism. I became hungry to learn more and have been interested in autism ever since.
KM: How has your perception of autism changed since filming the movie?
SB: Before, I thought most individuals with autism were Caucasian. I don’t have anyone from my immediate family so I thought of it as this abstract thing. I didn’t think I was connected to this in anyway. Then after the film I realized I knew there are so many people out there who have it. One thing I learned from the six students, the great thing about people with autism is that they live in the moment. The guys would make us be present in the moment when we were filming, they were very truthful. My focus is to live present.
DD: I didn’t know a whole a lot about autism. I know a few individuals with aspergers. I knew the spectrum was broad but didn’t know it was this broad. I learned, one, about how diverse it is. The label is more than just one individual. I think the media portrayal is not broad enough. I was pretty ignorant going in and now it has opened my eyes that autism is out there.
It’s also incredibly hard for parents taking care of them.
SB: And also mainly how a simple thing can make or break a family. The smallest things we sometimes take for granted can make a huge difference -- things like time for example. For instance, working 9-2 compared to 9-5 and needing someone there to take care of you. Also things like transportation could be a deciding factor whether someone stays at home. I would have never thought about these things before.
KM: How are the six graduated students highlighted in the film doing today?
SB: Most of them are doing ok but it’s been tough. I try to remain in contact whenever we can. Robert is a heartbreak for all of us though; essentially, he has fallen off the cliff.
KM: What do you hope people take away from this film in relationship to autism?
SB: That they feel emotionally connected to this. Now they know Robert. Now they know Quran. And they now know Mino. We want people with autism to incorporated into our society. Senator Menendez started the AGE-IN Bill and we think that will be great for adults with autism. Don’t feel like autism is something that can be ignored. It can’t. All adults with autism have something to offer and they deserve quality of life just like anyone else.
DD: And also don’t think of these individuals as disabled or burdened. They can be productive members of society if they are given the opportunities.
JM: We also need more adult services. We need more services for parents. We need to contribute more money for more programs for everyone who is aging out of the system. So far a lot of different groups have reached out to us. We hope this is the start of something great for our kids. In addition we need to help the parents because it can be a struggle.
KM: After premiering on PBS tonight what is next for the film?
DD: We are going to continue to have screenings for the film and ask others to volunteer to host a screening via a website called Tugg. We also plan on releasing the film on November 12th on Amazon Instant Video and ITunes!
KM: Thank you all for your time today and best of luck moving forward with your film!
You can learn more about the film here. If you missed seeing it on September 23rd you can stream it between the dates of Sep 24th-Oct 7th on PBS’s official website here. Also, make sure to check out our “Maybe” campaign, a new series of public service advertisements designed to spread awareness of autism to African American and Hispanic families. You can also check out our transition tool kit which is focused on young adults with autism transitioning out of school.