MY STORY

A Pinball Wizard With Autism Tells All

World-ranked pinball champion Robert Gagno, the subject of new documentary Wizard Mode, talks about what it’s like to come of age with autism.    

05.04.16 3:15 PM ET

World-ranked pinball champion Robert Gagno is the subject of crowdfunded documentary Wizard Mode, which tracks his rise through the international ranks and his experience coming of age with autism. The film premiered Monday, May 2 at the 2016 HotDocs Festival. Here, Gagno—with the help of his mother, Kathy—talks about his experiences with autism, his love of pinball, and what he hopes to achieve by sharing his story with the world.

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What is it like to have autism? I guess it depends on the day you ask me. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it is cool, and most of the time I don’t think about it. I have always had it so I can only compare myself to people who don’t have it, and sometimes I don’t always pick the best role models to compare myself to. I know that sometimes I have difficulty communicating my thoughts and ideas clearly. That makes me say “random things” sometimes, as my sister says, like I say whatever springs into my head. It makes conversations confusing at times because someone will say I have been on the topic for too long and then a minute later say that I switch the topic too often. Some days everything is too loud, too smelly, and I feel jumpy. Now that I am an adult, I have learned that I can avoid information overload by listening to music through earphones or headphones.

I have had always had strong interests in certain things. I used to love exit signs, rotating fans and fire alarms when I was little. My mom said she would let me turn switches on and off to keep me in one place but would have to watch me around fire alarms. I remember following the “Pull Alarm” directions at least three times and all the excitement it caused. Other interests included numbers, like telephone codes, bus schedules, and serial numbers on buses, then hockey and hockey statistics, The Simpsons and SpongeBob cartoons, and Nintendo games. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I understood that most people don’t have the same level of interest in the same things I do. I still get surprised when people say that they don’t want to talk about something anymore. I often don’t realize I can be repetitive talking about something I enjoy.

Discovering Pinball

Pinball is something I really enjoy. I have liked it for as long as I can remember but the intensity of my interest changed often. It was high from the ages of ten to 12, then low-to-medium until about the age of 19, when it became high again. My parents even bought me a pinball machine when I was ten, during a high-interest time, but after about a year I got into video games so they covered it up for about eight years.

I knew I was good. I remember people watching me play and commenting on how good I was but I didn’t realize how good until I started playing in tournaments. I am lucky because my parents like pinball a lot too, and so instead of normal “vacations,” most of our holidays are now “pincations” to pinball tournaments and shows. For some we’ll drive to Washington, Oregon or Northern California tournaments and others we’ll fly to, usually me and my dad. I don’t mind flying but I get very stressed anytime I have to go somewhere by plane because I hate all the waiting around and the lines and I get very anxious about all the security checks partly because I can’t wear my headphones. The anxiety makes things even louder than they probably are.

I love being good at pinball. It makes me feel good inside to know that I am one of the best players in the world. I worked hard to get into the top ten of the International Flipper Pinball Association’s world player rankings, and it is just as hard to stay in the top ten. I don’t think my memory for language is great, but it is very good for visual information. This is very useful in pinball because the newer games require following certain rules and sequences to get to the highest level. Supposedly, I process visual information differently. Some people claim I have magic powers with pinball but they might be joking. I can concentrate very hard on good days, but on the bad days I have a terrible time focusing. In big tournaments the final rounds are often very early in the morning, kind of like punishment for being a night person. I hope to be number one in the world one day but I am happy with where I am now. It is nerve-wracking in some ways though because now I not only have to go to the bigger tournaments, which means air travel, but I also have to do well to stay at a high position in the rankings.

The Stigma of Autism

I hear and have read that pinball is helping me overcome the stigma of autism. I am not too sure what that means. I tend to see the same people over and over at tournaments and most of them seem to be friendly. Some of them ask about autism or mention it but a lot of the time it doesn’t seem to be too big of a deal. One news story said something about my autism disappearing when I play pinball.  I don’t know about it actually disappearing like “poof! It is gone,” but maybe it just blends in. Other pinball players, especially in tournaments, do things that might seem odd if they did it in a public place like a mall or grocery store. Some players talk to themselves or to the pinball machine and say random things, they jump up and down or pace, some wear headphones, and they are just as obsessed with pinball as I am.  Outside of the pinball tournament that would look autistic! It is okay if I don’t feel like talking or if I just want to play on my own. Pinball might be one of the only sports where it is okay to turn your back on people and it is even expected. Sometimes it is still confusing figuring out people’s behaviours but less confusing than, say, at a birthday party.

I like to be alone sometimes but I also enjoy being around people I like and meeting new people, just like everyone else. I have goals and dreams and want to be independent one day. This is where autism can be very frustrating and a pain in the butt. Everything new has to be learned in pieces and sometimes that takes a long time. Every time I learn something new it’s like someone throwing a bunch of jigsaw pieces down and putting them together to figure out the picture. Sometimes the pieces fit together strangely, so mistakes happen. At those times I feel like the stigma is still there.

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The Wizard Mode Documentary

The first time I met the directors of Wizard Mode I was confused about who they are. They came to my house and interviewed my family and me and I learned they wanted to make a feature length documentary. This was exciting because I wanted to show people how good I am at pinball and also what it’s like living on the autism spectrum.

I’m excited about Wizard Mode because it’s going to be inspiring to see a person on the spectrum achieving their dreams. Working with the directors, Jeff Petry and Nathan Drillot, has been overall a good experience.  One thing I really like about doing the film is that I got interviewed by an Italian newspaper. Because my Dad is from Italy, it means a lot to us. The only negative is that sometimes when you make a movie you have to do the same thing over and over again. I find it can really test my patience a lot. But it’s good sometimes to test your patience because it teaches you to be able to do things that are important but not always fun.

We’ve traveled a lot together and had the chance to eat a lot of interesting food.  Once, we were in Pittsburgh and we had the best burger of my life at Butterjoint. It was perfectly round and cooked medium rare. The biggest adventure we had on the film was taking the train from Seattle to Chicago. It took 72 hours and at the end we went to the Stern Factory to see how they make pinball machines.

I hope people like the movie because it’s been a long time making it and I hope they’ll become more fascinated by the world of autism and do their own research. Hopefully people will buy more books about autism and talk about it more. Because then it will help people understand the people around them better and not just see them as a label.