Police aid autism families: Naugatuck PD has special needs safety program

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Naugatuck police Sgt. Alexia McMasters, left, and resident Jennifer Harding look at an autism safety alert form inside the police station Monday, April 24. Harding’s son, Derek, is pictured in the background. Derek, 11, has autism, epilepsy, ADHD, tourettes, is nonverbal and the inspiration behind the form. Lance Reynolds Republican-American

By Lance Reynolds Republican-American

NAUGATUCK — After borough resident Jennifer Harding and her then 10-year-old son, Derek, were rear-ended last November in Middlebury, the single mother thought about the “what ifs.” Derek, now 11, has autism, epilepsy, ADHD, tourettes and is nonverbal, making it a challenge to communicate in times of need.

“Luckily, I was coherent, but if I wasn’t, he couldn’t tell anyone who he is,” Harding said of the crash. “They could run my plates, but my plates don’t have an emergency contact.”

Derek is the inspiration behind an autism safety alert form that area police departments have launched to make it easier for responding officers to meet the needs of children on the autism spectrum during incidents.

The form provides police dispatchers a child’s name, date of birth, nickname, emergency contact information, height, weight, address, eye and hair color. It also details the child’s communication, atypical behaviors, dislikes, medical conditions, what they’re sensitive to and ways they calm down.

“I said, ‘If I do this and I get a police station that wants to work with me … then immediately when the call comes in, regardless if it’s a fire, a missing child, dispatch has that sheet.’”

Initially, Harding looked to Naugatuck police to implement the form as a collaboration with Walk with Derek, a walk she’s held for seven years to raise autism awareness. Interest in the form, however, has caught on like wildfire since borough police introduced it on the department’s Facebook page on April 21.

Prospect, Beacon Falls, Southbury, Newtown, Shelton, Seymour and Wolcott have implemented the form at their departments since, Harding said on Friday. The form has caught the attention of state police, too, she said.

If parents report their children missing, and they have trouble explaining to dispatch who their child is, the form provides a point of reference, Naugatuck police Sgt. Alexia McMasters said.

Addresses will be put into a file, and if a call comes in from that address, the form will be flagged, she said.

Dispatchers will then relay information from the form to responding officers. The form will be used for all calls that police receive involving children on the autism spectrum, Harding said.

“We are looking for any form of making anyone’s life easier and our communication with our community much easier,” McMasters said. “This checks both of those boxes.”

Prospect Police Lt. Nelson Abarzua called the form a ‘homerun.’ He encourages parents to detail what their children’s favorite things are on the back side of the form to create a bond with officers.

“It’s hard for us to calm them down, they get stressed and out of their element,” Abarzua said of responding to calls involving children with autism. “By having that information with the form and accessible to us, we will be able to better communicate with them.”

Naugatuck students on individualized education plans have brought the form home to be filled out and given to police, Harding said. IEPs provide accommodations for students with learning differences.

Derek and his mother moved to Naugatuck from Prospect at the end of 2019. He is on an IEP in the borough district but attends ACES Village School in North Haven. The fifth-grader will be transferring in the coming weeks to the Speech Academy in Easton so his needs can be better met, Harding said.

“Because every town that’s going to pick it up, I change the form and add a different police logo to it for him,” she said. “He’s just smiling looking at all of the different pieces of paper in front of him. I can’t even put into words how amazing this feels.”

Those interested in the form can email Harding at walkwithderek[AT]gmail.com.