NAUGATUCK — Four years ago, Jennifer Harding had a scare no mother should have to experience. Her son, Derek, who was 8 years old at the time, disappeared one day. The boy, who is on the autism spectrum, walked away from his grandfather’s house with his mother's phone in hand, wearing nothing but a diaper. Derek was found safe soon after, but Harding knows this situation could have had a tragic outcome.
Sadly, such incidents are not uncommon for parents raising autistic children. “When we moved to Naugatuck, a 16-year-old autistic individual took off on his parents from Naugatuck on foot and ended up picked up in Oxford by state troopers,” Harding said. “Once that happened, I knew I had to get this done.”
What Harding did was design a simple tool that members of law enforcement can use should an autistic child in their community go missing. The “Walk with Derek” Autism Safety Alert Form Harding conceived of in 2022 allows parents to describe their special-needs child, including their common behaviors and communication style. Parents may also indicate specific things that may trigger the child, and methods which may calm them. Also, caretakers are encouraged to supply a photo of the child.
The “Walk with Derek” information is then filed with the family’s local police department.
“Being a single mom raising Derek alone, it took me time to get the design right and figure out how to approach it,” Harding said. “Naugatuck welcomed it with open arms, and it took off from there.”
Currently, the “Walk with Derek” form is available in more than 20 Connecticut communities, including Plainville.
“Our plan is to advertise the form on our social media, as well as have the form available on our website and at the police department,” Plainville Chief of Police Christopher Vanghele said. “We would ask parents and guardians of individuals on the autism spectrum to voluntarily complete the form and drop it off at the PD. We would keep the completed form in a binder that could be referred to should our officers have an interaction with the individual.”
North Haven Police Department Lieutenant Matthew Falcon said the “Walk with Derek” program is another example of police departments adapting to the needs of the community to better serve their residents.
Jennifer Harding said local legislators have contacted her about making the “Walk with Derek” document available across the state.