Gaining confidence

Vanier Elementary’s Robbie Wickham finds new ways to express himself

Published on June 26, 2014

“There once was a boy named Robbie, who loved to learn new words,” begins the puppet show.

“He was learning new words every day. One day he learned how to say ‘Ms. Gallant’ and ‘Ms. Noseworthy,’ and they were the happiest teachers ever.”

Vanier Elementary School instructional resource teacher Jillian Gallant beams as she reads the lines, pausing at every fourth or fifth word to hand the microphone to her student, Robbie Wickham.

Partially hidden behind his tabletop puppet theatre and acting as puppeteer, Robbie fills in the blanks in the story.

“Robbie loved to play —”

“Hockey!” Robbie says, smiling.

A happy boy with a love of sports, Robbie, age 11, has Down syndrome. A year ago, Robbie’s vocabulary consisted of about 20 words; these days he has a bank of about 100, which he combines with his own sign language to communicate, getting his point across in no uncertain terms.

Along with help from Gallant, other teachers and a speech-language pathologist, Robbie uses an app called Proloquo2go on his iPad. Using symbols and written words, the app allows people with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and other conditions to speak without voice: they put the sentences together and the app says them.

Earlier in the school year, Gallant and Robbie began using The Telegram in connection with the app: guided by Robbie and his interests, they’d choose stories from each day’s news and plug them into the iPad.

“A lot of times it was hockey, so there was a lot of P.K. Subban in there,” Gallant says, smiling. “He was learning to type and he’d take the photo, do the editing and share it. It was a way for him to communicate with his friends. Over the course of the year it was building and it’s been incredible.”

When The Telegram learned of Robbie’s success earlier this year, representatives visited him at school and gave him a pair of tickets to an IceCaps game at Mile One Centre. He went to the game with his dad, Darrell Harvey.

“Go IceCaps, go!” Robbie says when asked how he enjoyed the game. “Five to two,” he says of the score.

On Wednesday, the second-last day of school for the year and Robbie’s second-last ever at Vanier, since he’ll be moving up to MacDonald Drive Junior High in the fall, Robbie and Gallant invited some guests to the library for a special presentation: a puppet show they had written together, with handmade puppets representing each of them, designed by Robbie. His own puppet wears glasses and an IceCaps jersey, and holds an iPad.

His words memorized, Robbie doesn’t miss a single one when Gallant hands him the microphone.

“Ms. Gallant had a —”

“Cat,” Robbie fills in. “Harley,” he says, of the cat’s name.

When the show is over, after Robbie has taken a bow and receives a standing ovation, both Gallant and Robbie’s father say the changes in Robbie over the past year haven’t been limited to his speech.

“He seems pleased with himself,” Harvey explains. “It’s great. I love it.”

“He has so much confidence now,” Gallant adds. “Even his self-care: he brushes his teeth independently and brushes his hair and makes sure his appearance is clean. He’s really confident and happy now that he has this ability to communicate. That certainly says a lot for a child that had a lot of difficulty with those types of issues.”

Gallant says she has every confidence Robbie will be fine in Grade 7, but tears up when she imagines school life at Vanier without him.

“He’s been such a big part of my year,” she explains. “I can’t even think about it right now. But where he is right now, he’s in a good place. We’ve given him the wings, and now he’s ready to fly.”

To see a video of Robbie presenting his puppet show, visit

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Robbie Wickham, who uses The Telegram and his iPad to communicate his ideas, reacts to hearing that he was going to be in The Telegram. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram