A special companion for ‘Matty’

Stephens City family raising funds for autism service dog for son

By Josette Keelor

STEPHENS CITY — In the fenced-in backyard of a friend’s house, Matthew “Matty” Pangle recently chased a soccer ball. The game is one of the 7-year-old’s favorites, and his mother Nichole Pangle said he would keep it up for hours if given the opportunity.

Running alongside him chasing a squeaky pumpkin dog toy, Jake, a shepherd-greyhound mix, is more than the dog of friend Connie Purtlebaugh — he’s Matty’s unofficial “practice dog.” His mother said she hopes that Matty, who’s severely autistic, will have his own autism service dog soon to keep him safe when he runs.

“There’s times that we can’t go places because we’re afraid he’ll run away,” Pangle said. “He’ll run out in front of cars. He’s done that before.”

Matty would be tethered to a service dog’s harness, “So if he tries to run off, he won’t be able to,” his mother said. The dog would also be able to track him in an emergency.

But receiving a service dog isn’t as easy as requesting one. The Pangles need to raise $14,000 of the $22,000 it costs the organization 4 Paws for Ability to train a dog for Matty’s needs.

“What might work for Matty isn’t going to work for another child,” Pangle said. “Matty’s pretty high energy. He’s in constant motion, and it’s going to take a very special dog and a very special temperament.”

She said 4 Paws, which provides “quality service dogs to children worldwide” raises money for training through fundraisers and sponsorships, and the Pangles plan to do the same, for their part.

The family has raised almost $2,000 so far through bake sales and Matthew Pangle’s Fundraising Page at “http://www.firstgiving.com”>http://www.firstgiving.com. Upcoming fundraisers include the Walkin’ in a Canine Wonderland event from 1 to 4 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Stephens City Newtown Commons, and the Bark & Wine Fundraiser on Feb. 21 at Barrel Oak Winery. The December event includes a dog walk, treat hunt, costume contest and photos with Santa Claus. Registration will be $25, and the “freezer pleaser” raffle grand prize is a chest freezer with a month’s worth of meals and desserts.

Matty was 2 years old when diagnosed with autism, and his mother said he still functions at that age. His IQ is less than 70.

“He developed typically for the first, I’d say, 14 months and then after that he started losing pretty much all of his skills, between 14 and 18 months. He used to talk, used a couple-word sentences, and by 18 months he completely stopped speaking.”

As executive director of Arc (Achieve with us) of Northern Shenandoah Valley, Pangle recognized the signs.

“For about three or four months Matty would sit under the end table and take my sneakers and hold them up and just stare at them, by the shoelaces, for hours and hours at a time. Not typical behavior. He wouldn’t play with toys, he didn’t make eye contact, which is something that he did very, very well before 14 months. And that’s when we really noticed the significant change,” she said.

Through Arc, she tapped into community resources, like speech, occupational and physical therapy through the Lutheran Family Services.

“Autism is such a wide spectrum,” Pangle said. Those who are high functioning can hold regular jobs, she said. Others, like Matty, can barely talk.

Through Matty’s experience, she said she hopes to raise awareness for autism. Like many others with autism, Matty needs his routine.

“Every morning, five pieces of bacon, medication and then a cookie,” his mother says.

Diagnosed with celiac disease, he’s on a gluten-free diet. At Middletown Elementary School, he attends a self-contained class before returning home for his nightly rituals.

Pangle is also part of the routine: “I need to put my backpack down, take my shoes off, then I’m going to throw the ball for a little bit. Any change is really difficult for him.”

But she’s noticed signs of progress.

“In the past couple months he’s learned to say things that he really, really wants, like [iced] ‘tea’ and ‘cookies’ and ‘ball.’ Those are his three words,” she says. His iPad can talk for him too. With a click of a button, he can tell her “I want.” Other personalized picture buttons indicate food or drinks.

He’s also learned to smile. When prompted, he opens his mouth wide and shows his teeth.

“That’s his big smile,” she said. “That’s a long way in coming.”

Tax deductible donations for Matty’s service dog can be made to http://tinyurl.com/q8l5hb2, or to 4 Paws for Ability, 253 Dayton Ave., Xenia, Ohio 45385. For information on Matty, visit his Facebook page at http://tinyurl.com/ox6tzgt.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com