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. She’s working with police in Meriden, Wallingford, North Haven and other communities to ensure it doesn’t.
Sadly, incidents such as this are not uncommon for people 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 which 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 that may calm them.
Caretakers are advised to include their child’s photo with the form, which is filed with their 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 – Meriden and Wallingford among them – and Harding said local legislators have contacted her about making the document a state-wide initiative.
Lt. Matthew Falcon of the North Haven Police Department pointed to the "Walk with Derek" effort as an example of law enforcement adapting to the needs of their community in order to better serve residents.