How an autistic child became world pinball champion

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Pinball champion Robert Gagno

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 struggled to form sentences until he was seven

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.

“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.”

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

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

Every disability is an ability depending on the angle you’re looking from.

Read also tips for identifying an abused child.

Source: BBC News.

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