AKRON, Ohio — At the age of 2, Angel Bowling hadn't yet said his first word.

Edith Hacker's friends told her not to worry: "They said boys are slower than girls," said Hacker, Angel's grandmother.

But the child's inability to communicate frustrated them both, and she soon began to suspect it was far from normal.

"He was getting so frustrated and so was I, because he could never get us to understand what he wanted," Hacker said.

Her instincts were correct. Angel was diagnosed with autism and speech delay, and a team at Akron Children's Hospital developed a specialized evaluation and treatment to fit his specific needs.

It would take a four-legged Doggie Brigade volunteer named Izzie to break through the barrier.

"When we first met him, Angel was completely nonverbal. His attention was very limited," said speech and language pathologist Stacey Fernstrum of Copley.

At first, the therapy sessions didn't go well, said Fernstrum, who has worked with Angel one day a week for the past three years. "He wouldn't even sit in a chair," she said.

But early on, Fernstrum noticed that Angel responded to the small plastic toy animals she uses in her sessions. She had a gut feeling that a Doggie Brigade volunteer might help calm the child's anxieties and fears, enough to help get Angel emotionally prepared to begin therapy.

Besides, animals are usually kid magnets, Fernstrum reasoned. "I called Volunteer Services and said 'I need a small dog with a calm temperament.'"

Angel and Izzie, a 5-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel, soon became fast friends.

"She picked up on children and their needs without being specifically trained to work in speech therapy," said Izzie's owner/handler Margaret Cook, an area resident. "She loves to be around children."

It took only one meeting before Angel picked up the dog's leash and walked with her into his speech therapy room — "the first time he had done so on his own.

"She showed up and jumped up and sat in a chair, and he sat down. Before, it was her (Hacker) carrying him in here," said Fernstrum, who has worked in the speech pathology department at Children's for 16 years.

Hacker, Angel's maternal grandmother, became the boy's legal guardian in 2010 after the 9-month-old was abandoned by his mother in an extended-stay hotel in Florence, Ky.

The Kentucky Department of Human Services took custody of the boy after hotel employees discovered the crying child. As luck would have it, a supervisor who worked with Hacker at a Florence Walmart while she attended college, somehow identified the baby as Hacker's grandchild and contacted her.

"I didn't know Angel existed until I got the phone call telling me they found him," said Hacker, who by this time was living in Ohio.

Hacker drove to Kentucky to collect Angel, the fourth grandchild she would take into her home to raise. She had already brought up another daughter's three children.

Nothing with this child was easy, said Hacker. But by the time Angel was 2, grandmother and grandson had developed their own means of communication.

"We were actually doing our own made-up sign language," she said.

But because Angel couldn't talk to her, Hacker could only comfort the wailing child by holding him when he couldn't readily tell her "what hurts and what he needs," she said.

Enter Izzie.

After three years of attending weekly speech therapy classes together, dog and boy respond subtly to signals from each other. Angel, now 5, continues to improve while Izzie waits patiently by his side, anticipating his emotional needs.

Now and then, Angel initiates a conversation with the dog with a pat on her head and a huge smile on his face.

During a class earlier this month, Izzie, who rested her head on the table to grab a quick snooze during a session, came to attention when Angel got bored, slumped back in his chair and needed her help to focus on the job he was doing.

A little lick on the hand (and a few more on the chin) brought out the smile again and helped get Angel back on track on a lesson, interacting with a book Fernstrum was reading.

Unprompted, Angel then correctly identified each of this favorite plastic animals before giving them a ride on a Thomas the Tank Engine train set.

"When he first came to us, his play skills were impaired. He wouldn't have gotten the concept. Now, he'll take the little animals and have them talk to each other," she said.

Speech therapy has been a godsend, said Hacker, who drove to Florida recently to take custody of Angel's 3-year-old sister, Angelina, who was also abandoned by her mother. Hacker has permanent custody of Angel and has filed for permanent custody of Angelina.

While Hacker is working part-time at Walmart, a job she has held for 28 years, Angel and his sister attend day care. Four days a week, he also takes a bus to preschool classes at a local elementary school.

But it's the weekly therapy sessions that have been "my life support," said Hacker. "This has been a miracle for me."

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©2014 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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