Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Kiwanis Autism Projects provides iPads to hundreds of kids

NOW: Natalie’s Everyday Heroes: Kiwanis Autism Projects provides iPads to hundreds of kids

SHEBOYGAN FALLS, Wis. (CBS 58) -- iPads are one of the most user-friendly devices out there. So, it's no wonder kids love them.

They can also be an especially powerful learning tool for children with autism. Special apps are designed to make it easier for them to communicate. A Sheboygan Falls grandfather has made it his mission to get them into the hands of has many kids as possible. 

"By the door," asks speech therapist, Sheila Kloepping, pressing a button. "By the door," the computerized voice on an iPad responds.

Kloepping and her student Zoe Lawrence as using an iPad to help find hidden keys around her classroom at Sheboygan Falls Elementary School.

Sometimes finding the key is all it takes to unlock the treasure inside.

"Three. Three? You're Right. You Found Three Coins," Kloepping exclaims, as student Zoe Lawrence counts the coins she found inside a small treasure chest.

For Lawrence, her iPad is that key. Both she and her twin sister, Chloe, have autism.

"They've just been gradually learning and learning and learning, " said their mother, Heather Lawrence. "When they first started, though, they didn't talk."

A year-and-a-half ago, their mom wondered if the girls would ever be able to communicate.

"Just things like, I didn't know what their favorite food was, and stuff like that. They can tell me now," Lawrence said.

Kloepping works with both girls, who recently turned six.

"They use this to be able to express their needs or their wants," she explained.

Kloepping is a speech and language pathologist. She uses the iPads to help her students form sentences, express emotions and learn new things.

"We have taught children how to paint, how to use a glue stick," she said.

There's also a visual schedule to help them navigate their days.

"It's no different than your planner or the schedule you have on your phone," Kloepping said. "We all want to know our schedule for the day. We want to know how long it will last and what the expectations are."

It's a set of tools Lawrence said have added up to big changes in her daughters.

"I want to say, independence, confidence, just, they're happy," she said.

It's a story repeated with more than 1,500 kids with autism across Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. They now have access to these tools, thanks to a program launched by Lynn Messer.

"We have a granddaughter that's on the spectrum," Messer said. "Early diagnosis and the use of the iPad is extremely important with these children."

Messer oversees the Kiwanis Autism Project.

He was inspired after seeing a segment on CBS 60 Minutes. It detailed a program launched in Canada more than a decade ago. He thought he could do it here, and he has.

"We get hugs from parents, from therapists," Messer said with emotion.

Kiwanis Clubs in the state have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide the iPads to families, free of charge.

"It's wonderful, especially for a parent who can't afford one, not only two," Lawrence said.

The iPads are for the kids to keep both at home and at school. Lawrence sees the girls as more outgoing now. Zoe is quick to show off a loose front tooth.

It not only effects the children that you give the iPad to, it effects their siblings, it effects their parents, and the employers that their parents work for," Messer said.

It's an impact Lawrence has seen first-hand.

"They play. They have more time to play. You know, little kids are supposed to play," she said.

The iPads have unlocked a whole new world for kids like Chloe and Zoe.

"We did it! High Five! Alright," Kloepping said, giving Chloe a big high five.

The Wisconsin Upper Michigan Kiwanis Autism Project is holding a 5k walk and run this Saturday in Sheboygan Falls to raise money for the program. For more information, visit their website.

If you'd like to nominate an Everyday Hero, send Natalie a message at [email protected].

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