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How an autistic child became world pinball champion

Pinball champion Robert Gagno says having autism has made him a better player. But it’s also true that playing pinball has helped him live with autism.

When Robert Gagno plays pinball at his local arcade a crowd usually gathers to watch. The Canadian, who lives near Vancouver in British Columbia, has such control he can make each metal ball last up to an hour. He regularly smashes machine records, typing R E G – Robert Emilio Gagno – in the roll of honour.

“If I’m just playing for fun I can play safe shots over and over again. Along the way I figure out which shots score the most points,” the 27-year-old says.

He bends almost horizontally over the machine, bouncing the ball delicately between the flippers, before sending it high up the playfield.

Each hit generates a flurry of electronic noises and flashing lights that reflect off his glasses. Robert, who has autism, says this is what first attracted him to the game.

Robert playing at PAPA

His father, Maurizio, remembers the day it all began.

“I took him out for a hamburger when he was five,” he says. “There was a pinball machine in the corner and he was much more interested in that than the food. My wife Kathy and I realised we could actually sit and relax for a bit while Robert played.”

Kathy noticed her son was “different” early on. He was fascinated by Exit signs, liked to spin in circles and often cried and screamed in parent and toddler groups.

Robert as a childImage copyrightKATHY GAGNO
Image captionRobert struggled to form sentences until he was seven

“The word autism was first mentioned when Robert was three,” Kathy says.

“It wasn’t well known back then. The library books I found blamed bad mothering, which made no sense to me.”

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Robert took longer than usual to learn to speak and his words would come out in a jumbled order. He became frustrated when he couldn’t be understood and remembers feeling like he didn’t fit in.

“He was a sweet and funny kid but he needed a lot of supervision. We were always open about his struggles to other kids saying things like, ‘Sometimes it may not seem like it but he is really happy to play near you,’” Kathy says.

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Robert Gagno playing pinball

Listen to Robert Gagno talking about the role pinball plays in his life on Outlook, on the BBC World Service

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Pinball provided a sanctuary from an often confusing world. His parents bought him his own machine, called Whirlwind, when he was 10 years old and he dedicated hours each day to improving his skills. They now have a dozen machines in their garage in Burnaby, outside Vancouver.

As Robert’s playing improved so too did his confidence. He began to play at outdoor venues such as bowling alleys.

“It’s helped with things like turn-taking, sportsmanship and making small talk and it’s certainly boosted his self-esteem,” Kathy says.

It has also provided opportunities to make friends.

“I like playing with other people in leagues. There are good players in Vancouver and it is fun to try and beat each other’s scores, or show new players how to play the game,” he says.

Robert Gagno talking to a fellow competitor at a tournament
Image captionRobert likes to talk about play style at tournaments

Robert took up competitive pinball when he was 19. Today he is Canada’s top player and ranks among the top 10 in the world.

He thinks having autism has boosted his game.

“I find I can focus on one thing for a long time and I have a strong visual memory. So I only have to play a machine once to remember it,” he says.

“I’m also able to notice a lot of things happening at the same time and quickly calculate where the ball is going to go.”

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Robert Gagno playing pinball

However, the condition also has its disadvantages. Robert struggles with social cues, such as the best time to give a friendly hug.

“I find it hard to understand when to talk and when not to talk or figure out what kinds of greetings to give people,” he says.

Robert also has trouble picking the “right words” for a situation. In a documentary about him called Wizard Mode, he is asked what he would like an employer to know about him. “That I’m affectionate,” he says. There is a pause. “I think you mean you’re friendly and can get on with people,” his mother replies.

His autism can also have a negative effect his game.

Maurizio Gagno opens up his garage
Image captionMaurizio maintains 12 pinball machines in the family garage

“I’m more prone to becoming anxious and I can struggle to concentrate if I get upset or worried. When that happens I don’t play as well,” Robert says.

He plays pinball for a couple of hours each day in the run-up to a tournament. His father helps him prepare for the inevitable change to his routine, something Robert tends to find quite difficult.

“We talk about things like waiting in line at the airport,” Maurizio says.

“I also sort out his tournament entries and make sure he eats and gets enough sleep when we’re there, because otherwise he would probably forget.”

Maurizio acts as a coach. He helps Robert to stay calm and put bad games behind him.

Robert discusses a tournament with his father Maurizio

Tournaments are held across Europe, Canada and America. However, the most prestigious is the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) World Pinball Championship in Pennsylvania, where the winner is crowned world champion. The winner’s name is printed on a banner and hung from the rafters of the PAPA headquarters in Pittsburgh.

Robert entered last year and made short work of the early rounds.

“It feels amazing when you’re in the zone,” he says.

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His mother was keeping an eye on the results back at home.

“I remember thinking, ‘Holy Crow, he’s made it to the top four,’” Kathy says.

Robert went into the final against the top seeded player Zac Sharp. Sharp chose the machine they would play on – Flash Gordon, an old game but a notoriously difficult one. However, Robert chalked up a huge score on his second ball, which proved unbeatable. Moments later he was lifting the trophy, while his father looked on with tears in his eyes.

“I was so excited, happy and proud to win PAPA,” Robert says.

“I love proving people wrong about me.”

Robert continues to play competitive pinball but is now focusing on becoming more independent. He works for two mornings a week doing office work in a bank and attends an evening class on computer programming. He has also talked about his pinball career at public events. While Robert currently lives at home with his parents, he is keen to get his own place.

“I would also like to get a girlfriend and even get married one day,” he says.

Grocery shopping

His proud parents encourage him to keep challenging himself.

“Robert’s a good-looking guy and I’ve encouraged him to sign up to dating websites,” Maurizio says.

“I don’t want him to feel limited or have any barriers.”

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Pictures courtesy of the documentary Wizard Mode, by Salazar Film, unless otherwise indicated


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