At Wymark School, Ashton Wiens may be known for his challenge with mild autism and the assistance he needs with socialization, but in the world of paintball he has discovered a level playing field for all ages and abilities and, at the age of nine, has been recognized for his unceasing promotion of the sport by product manufacturing executives and Saskatchewan's Premier.
Ashton’s love of the sport and his voluntary, unscripted sales pitches for KEE Action Sports’ line of paintball equipment at a recent Edmonton tournament left visitors - and KEE company executives - completely amazed.
“He got all of this attention because we were at the Nationals in Edmonton,” explained Ashton’s mom Shammy. “He basically stood there at the display and he literally did sales pitches to complete strangers, going on and on about the different products available and what it was all about, and he would shake their hand. He impressed a lot of people.”
“I was the Joe Cool sales guy,” agreed Ashton.
This would have been an exceptional accomplishment for many nine-year-olds but, because of Ashton’s challenge with autism, he didn’t speak until he was five. These days, he’s making up for lost time with an eloquence that captivated KEE’s corporate executives and, eventually, Premier Brad Wall.
“He’s considered mild high-functioning autism,” said Shammy. “He was completely non-verbal until about five. We knew all along that something was a little bit different, but it took a lot of testing. Now at Wymark School we have everything in place, Aids that work with him.
“We have to kind of script him as to how to behave. It’s the social part he really struggles with. I think that’s part of the reason why he’s enjoying this so much. It is very structured and it can be a very aggressive sport.”
Ashton got involved with paintball because his older brother Brennan participates in the sport at a competitive level, but Ashton isn’t old enough to handle CO2-powered equipment, so for Christmas 2012 he received a Splat Master spring-fed marker pistol, created to introduce younger children to the sport with age-appropriate equipment.
The Splat Master series includes a pistol and a shotgun, already on retail shelves, and a prototype rifle that was still at the testing stage when Ashton made his big impression at the Edmonton competition and trade show.
“While at Nationals he was introduced to Gino [Perrone] from KEE Action Sports and Ashton proceeded to tell him all about the product,” wrote Andy Keys, co-owner of Swift Current’s Army Paintball, in an article he posted on his blog The Catshack following the Edmonton competition.
“He also told him how, at the moment, he wasn’t allowed to fire it as he didn’t have any goggles yet. Well Gino said, ‘We can fix that!’ and gave him a set of goggles from right off the display.”
Later, Ashton made a similar impression on KEE president Billy Ceranski, who Keys quoted as saying, “If it wasn’t for the child labour laws, he would be working for us!”
While they were in Edmonton, Ceranski quietly told Keys about four prototype Splat Master rifles back in KEE’s product testing department, and assured Keys if there was one ready to go, they would ship it to Ashton in appreciation of the nine-year-old’s efforts.
Meanwhile, Keys had spoken with Premier Brad Wall about the young Wymark paintball enthusiast and the special gift in store for him, and Wall agreed to make the presentation to Ashton at Army Paintball on April 3.
“My name’s Brad,” said the Premier as he stepped into the army-themed showroom of the store for the first time.
“Good to meet you … Mr. Wall,” Ashton replied, shaking the Premier’s hand and clearly trying his best to remember protocol.
"You can call me Brad if you want,” said the Premier, and Ashton smiled.
“He’s been around the paintball field for at least the last year,” explained Keys.
“I hear you like it,” the Premier said to Ashton.
“I’m, like, a fan. So’s my best, best friend Kai [Haubrich]. I told him about the KEE Splat Master and we started up a team. It’s RHR Assassins.”
Keys then handed a box to Premier Wall. “This is the only marker in Canada. When Ashton was up in Edmonton he was giving his sales spiel to the president of KEE Action Sports.”
Wall said to Ashton, “And I hear the president thought it was fantastic, better than his own sales people could do. How cool was that?”
“It was really cool,” said Ashton as he sat down on the bench in the showroom. “I’ve always thought I’d be famous someday, and it just happened.” He paused introspectively and, as the Premier of Saskatchewan knelt down beside him, Ashton acknowledged the significance of the occasion. “It’s like talking to the President or something!” he said to the crowd of friends and family gathered to help celebrate. Despite cameras flashing and people talking, he remained calm.
Wall asked, “What did you do at the Trade Show?”
“I was talking to all the people because I was being a sales person.”
“Why is there only one?” the Premier asked. “Are they bringing more in?”
“They said they would be releasing some soon,” Ashton confirmed.
“Are they in the United States?”
“They’re not on shelves anywhere …,” said Keys.
“… so this is the only one here,” Ashton finished.
“Did you try it out when you were in Edmonton?” asked Wall.
“I haven’t even held it yet,” said Ashton.
“Wow. Four on Earth, basically, and one’s here in Swift Current,” observed the Premier, drawing out the suspense as he presented Ashton with the box. “And that’s it right there.”
“Have you opened the box yet?”
Finally, Ashton lifted the ‘All New’ Z300 Sniper out of the box.
“This thing’s heavy. I don’t know where the ammo goes.”
“That’ll be the fun part,” said Wall. “You can figure it all out tonight. Congratulations. You must have done a good sales job to get that. That’s pretty special."
“Yeah, special,” Ashton agreed. “It was nice meeting you,” he added, shaking the Premier’s hand.
“I’m glad I got to be here for this,” Wall told Ashton. “It’s kind of history. It’s historic, right, because this didn’t happen anywhere else in Canada with one of these. You’ll have to send me a note and tell me how it works.”
Ashton is looking forward to learning and competing with his new team and his new marker. Paintball is one of the few sports where all age groups and abilities can play together at the same time, and it’s an activity that combines sprinting and strategy with a need for quick thinking, team-work and eye-hand coordination.
His mother is grateful that everyone involved in the sport has been so supportive.
“[Autism] is extremely challenging, for us and for him too,” said Shammy. “It can be really, really frustrating because they view things quite differently than we do, and they don’t process the same way. It can be a bit much for us, but for a lot of people it can be totally overwhelming. Sensory overload. They just totally fall apart. He copes by acting out. The more he has a really good outlet, that’s important. That’s why I’m excited about this.”
Keys and Panasiuk love the sport because it develops cohesiveness and strength in teams of all kinds. They have three complete families as members who play together.
Ashton benefits from learning appropriate social interaction and structure as well as the need to communicate and develop the ability to send and understand social cues like facial and body language.
“Team building is huge in this. You have to rely on your team to be able to move and get to know where the other players are,” Keys said.
Co-owner Rene Panasiuk noted, “Anybody can play paintball. It doesn’t matter if you’re tall or short, older or younger. Everybody can be on the field at the same time playing, and it’s one of the only sports where you can do that. No restrictions. Some play from wheelchairs. They play with perfectly able-bodied people at a professional level.”
The games are also intense. “A game might last five minutes if you’re lucky,” said Keys. “There’s a lot of communication and team building in that five minutes.”
Army Paintball holds both training courses and local Woodsball, or Scenario, competitions on land that Keys owns near Wymark. Their club regularly takes teams sponsored by local businesses to regional competitions. Keys and Panasiuk are involved with the Canadian Professional Paintball League and they are trying to get paintball sanctioned as a sport in Saskatchewan.
“With this Splat Master, there’s games designed,” said Keys about structure for the younger enthusiasts, “and what we want to do this year is hold some games for the kids, not that they’re just going to go out and shoot each other, but actually train them with a static shoot, first of all, and then a move and shoot, and then an obstacle shoot, and then go into a game.
“There’s a series of tournaments now at Calgary and Edmonton, and we want to bring that to Swift Current. They’ve volunteered Refs to come down.”
Interest in Paintball is spreading throughout southwest Saskatchewan.
“There’s a huge group down in Shaunavon,” said Keys. “Their Fire Chief is in here quite a lot. There’s a group in Gull Lake. One of our boys down here is in the cadets. Through that we’ve had some cadets come down here. We’ve had the RCMP come out too. Two years running we’ve had the RCMP come out.”
Paintball empowers Ashton to succeed at a sport that he loves while he gets the physical, intellectual and social workout he needs, free from the framework of autism.
“Because of him and his chatting, he’s brought a lot of people towards Andy and what he’s doing here at the store,” said Shammy. “A lot of people don’t know anything about this as a sport, which is unfortunate because it’s a great thing.”
Army Paintball is located next to AM Delivery and Courier Services at 910 N. Railway St. W. Their website, under construction, is http://armypaintball.ca/.