Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Best Kept Secret": a look a special education for autistic boys in Newark, NJ, before they "age out"

When I entered the world of substitute teaching in the spring of 2004 in northern Virginia, I had no concept of what special education was.  I didn’t sign up for it, but I got calls for it anyway, almost immediately.  Special education could cover a wind range of students, but a portion of it comprised small classes for the profoundly disabled, who could stay in the system until they aged out at 21.

Best Kept Secret”, directed by Samantha Bucks, at AFI Docs (used to be called "AFI Silverdocs") this weekend, traces a few profoundly autistic students of teacher Janet Mino at JFK High School in Newark, NJ, as they live through their last year, climaxing in “graduation”.  The students face a variety of outcomes.  One attempts a part-time job at Burger King.  Others will go to adult day care.  Some will stay with parents.  The outcomes, according to the film, are not always good.  
The film gives a gritty look of the streets of Newark, particularly in winter.  I worked in downtown Newark in the fall of 1972 as a site rep for Univac and Public Service Electric and Gas.  I recall the little-known Newark subway.  Once, I spied on a meeting of Dr. Spock’s “People’s Party of New Jersey” in a drafty rowhouse, similar to some in the film.
As for my own experience with the most extreme needs in special education, I worked just two days with the extremely disabled, at two different schools.  In all cases, students had behavioral reminders taped on their desks. Most were boys.  A few had Down Syndrome (not in the film), some were severely austistic.  In one assignment, we took a school bus to a “work therapy” assignment all the way in Gainesville, VA at some local church, but came back “home” when one student peed in his pants.  The teachers were ambiguous in their attitudes.  There were other regular assistants who had to handle some intimate duties.  On a second assignment, the kids were to go swimming. The regular male teacher asked if I could “help out in the locker room” and man the deep end of the pool.  Well, I don’t swim very well. That assignment ended.  I refused all such assignments in the future.

The extreme needs for personal attention by the most severely disabled students from staff is a well-kept secret.  Near the end of the film, there is a scene in a swimming pool, where a male teacher or instructional assistant (for all I know, maybe a sub) his holding one of the teens from behind and helping him float.  That is what I missed out on on May 22, 2004.

The film says that 1 in 49 boys in the Newark, NJ public school system is autistic.  I don't know if that includes Asperger's, which is sometimes almost no disability at all.    
I think people like me who have lived separate lives in “urban exile” have no concept of the lives of “families with children” and the risks, of tender mercies, that having children (whether or not in marriage) and raising them can entail.  It can happen to any family.
Actually, there was one more such assignment near the end of 2004, before Christmas break.  That one ran three days.  As an assistant, I was assigned to a 17-year old who was totally non-reactive.  I was supposed to “make him” do certain things, whatever that means.  Suddenly, he woke up and started calling me Santa Claus for the remaining time in the three days. 
The official site (BKS Film) is here
The film screened in the largest auditorium at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, MD and was about two-thirds full, a good turnout.  There was a short Q-A.


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