This is an age when young boys begin the changes that will eventually lead them to manhood.
Yet for Stephen, who has been diagnosed with autism, his 13th birthday marks a dramatic struggle against archaic concepts that could have sentenced him to a life time in an institution.
At 13, Stephen has more in common with other boys and girls partly because his family and his community refused to accept old fashioned ideas and fought hard to make certain he and others diagnosed with the same ailment could have a receptive world where they can learn at their own pace.
For his mother, Margerite, autism is a kind of nightmare from which you never wake up, a struggle to keep your child safe when something inside the child seems determined to seek out destruction.
When younger Stephen loved the city swimming pool, but had an unusual and perhaps dangerous fixation on getting there. He knew the yellow lines in the middle of the street went to towards the swimming pool and wanted to follow them.
"I was scared to death about what he might do next," Margerite said.
It affects one in every 250 children. Autism impairs brain development in the areas of social interaction and communication and impacts one out of every 250s children. Symptoms could include inappropriate play, extreme social withdrawal, intense discomfort with new situations, people or surroundings, preoccupation and fixation, or behavioral problems.
Autism is a nightmare for parents, Margerite said, because children don't follow the usual progression you would expect. Caught up in their own mental loop, autistic children do not develop in the natural way, learning lessons from experience the way most children do. They can learn and develop, but often this is a time consuming and very frustrating effort.
Fortunately for Margerite, she had time and resources most parents lacked, giving Stephen a head start towards eventually emersion into the world. Yet she learned how families suffer.
"Parents can become desperate and not know where to turn," she said. "It is like seeing a train wreck coming and not know how to stop it."
Many autistic kids seem out of control, and refuse to respond to the usual techniques parents use in raising kids. Some autistic may fall into a silent shell, others may go out of control, kicking, biting or engaging in unsafe activities.
Seeking the right kind of school
For Margerite, the discovery of her son's ailment had age three sent her on a frantic search a school that would cater to his particular needs.
Although a resident of Bayonne, Margerite did not look locally for services for her son, believing that more elite school districts in such places as Short Hills might provide educational opportunities for the autistic. They did not. Bayonne did.
"I thought I hit the lottery," she said.
The Bayonne school district, she soon discovered, was "light years ahead of other places," even those posh school districts she believed would offer such assistance. Bayonne operates programs at Woodrow Wilson geared to autistic kids three years old or older.
Stephen responded quickly after being admitted to the program.
"He really took to Dr. (Patricia) McGeehan, who was principal there at the time," Margerite said.
There needs to be something more
Margerite's experience with her son made her realize that more resources were needed to help parents and their autistic children.
While the school district supplied everything necessary to provide an autistic child with the basic education through an individual education plan, other things could be provided through private donations.
Margerite also realized that there were many misconceptions about autism, and so in 1996, she helped found the Simpson-Baber Foundation to provide educational opportunities for kids and educate the general public.
"Autistic kids don't often get invited to birthday parties," she said, using this as an example of the small things that the foundation does. The foundational also organizes self-help groups and sports teams, offers lectures and provides tools such as the playground for autistic kids at Woodrow Wilson School.
But the most ambitious project so far the Busy Bee Center for Children with Autism, designed to provide a place for kids 18 months to three years old.
Co-sponsored by the foundation, the Bayonne Medical Center and the Bayonne Board of Education, Busy Bee is designed to give autistic children a head start at socializing and their parents a needed break from the nerve-racking effort at caring for these children. "Peggy got everyone together and tried to find a place where we could put this," said Dr. McGeehan, who has since become the superintendent of Bayonne Schools. "The Board of Education couldn't supply it. So we thought, why not ask the hospital."
The hospital not only had the space, but trained people near by to help if necessary. It also had something else, an understanding Chief Operating Officer Robert Evans, who had a child with autism.
The program, which is open to anyone anywhere, provided they can come to Bayonne and provides training for up to five children from September to June. The program includes everything from speech therapy to consulting pediatricians.
"We take kids on a first come first served basis," Margerite said.
Parents often network at the school, learning techniques for dealing with their own kids from others who have tried various strategies.
A special key in each kid
The school offers rewards for proper responses.
Margerite said she did not initially believe that you could treat a biological problem with a behavioral technique, but has since been convinced by the results.
"But it works," she said.
Each autistic child, she said, carries around a special key, an area of intense interest that if cultivated will allow the child to eventually come out of his or her personal shell. Stephen, for instance, has a fascination with the prehistoric, and though he still struggles to work out other areas of his development, he has conversed easily and knowledgeably with PhDs at the Museum of Natural History. Other autistic students have achieved much in the Bayonne school district such as winning spelling and geography bees.
Although structured like a traditional pre-school or Kindergarten, she said the program focuses on what is fun. Whatever sparks the interest of a child, that's what the school does. Teacher and aides ask a child's name, trying always to make eye contact. Each time a child successfully meets the adult's expectations, he or she is rewarded.
"Whatever makes the child tick we try to encourage," she said. "If they like to dance, we dance with them."
"Everything is step based," McGeehan said. "We break down tasks into many components."
The school day runs from 10 to 2 p.m. Every small detail is documented part of an effort to chart a child's progress.
McGeehan said the preschool provides a critical piece in helping autistic kids.
"The younger you start reaching out to these children, the better they will respond," McGeehan said, noting that many students arrive at Woodrow Wilson far ahead of where they might be otherwise, allowing the school district to build on what has already been accomplished. The school district, she noted, also provides additional support at the Washington School with its Life Skills program, which eventually allows autistic kids to be brought into the main stream.
Finding the money
The foundation raises money through in a variety of ways, such as the recently concluded Annual Baltusrol Golf Outing and the upcoming Humanitarian Award Dinner. The foundation also puts on an Annual Ran/Walk for Awareness, Annual Sail for Autism, The annual Stephen Barber Award and dinner, the Canister Drive, and the Day at the Races. The Humanitarian dinner is scheduled for Sept. 10 at the Liberty House Restaurant in Jersey City. The sail for Autism blue water overnight trip is scheduled for Sept 24, and its children Christmas party is slated for Dec. 18.
For more information about donations or the foundations various programs, you can call 201-858-9933.