The Frontal Cortex

The Autistic Surfer

In the latest issue of Outside Magazine, I profile Clay Marzo, a rising star on the pro surfing circuit. In December 2007, Clay was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. What’s so intriguing about Clay’s story is that his Asperger’s isn’t a hindrance or handicap. Instead, it’s a crucial part of his success, allowing Clay to focus, for hours at a time, on nothing but the physics of waves and the mechanics of surfing:

Clay Marzo has been waiting all morning for waves. He’s standing with his surfboard next to a NO TRESPASSING sign on the edge of a pineapple field, looking down at a remote beach on the northwest shore of Maui. There are no tourists here, because there is no sand, just a field of jagged lava rocks and a private dirt road. The tide is still too far out, so the waves are trashy. Clay hasn’t said a word for more than an hour; he hasn’t even moved. He’s just stood in the hot tropical sun and stared silently at the sea.

The waiting ends a few hours later, shortly after 1 P.M., when the trade winds begin to blow. Clay furiously rubs his hands together, like a man trying to start a fire, and lets out a few guttural whoops. He then grabs his board and quickly descends the steep slope in his bare feet, motioning for me to follow him.

There are a few surfers in the breaks to the right, away from the rocks. Clay heads to the left, where the waves are bigger. He paddles out and starts scanning the horizon, counting the seconds between the heaving swells. After a few minutes, he abruptly turns around and points his board toward the shore. His body goes taut and he starts to push backwards. The wave is still invisible–I can’t even feel the undertow–but Clay is already searching for the perfect position. And then it appears: a six-foot wall of shimmering blue. The water rises until it starts to collapse, which is when Clay pops up onto his board. He accelerates ahead of the break–his sudden speed makes the wave seem slow–and then he snaps upward, launches his board into the air, and somehow whips it around, so that he lands backwards on the disintegrating lip. For a dramatic moment, Clay looks off balance, but then he reverses the board and calmly rides the whitewash until it can no longer carry him. The wave is over. He’s already looking for the next one.

Clay Marzo doesn’t love surfing. Love is a complicated thing–sometimes people fall out of love–but there is nothing complicated about Clay’s relationship to the ocean. For Clay, surfing is an elemental need, a form of sustenance, a way of being that he couldn’t be without. He just turned 20, but he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t obsessed with barrels, shortboards, and the daily swell report. When there are no waves, Clay sinks into a stupor. His face takes on a sad, frustrated expression, and strangers think that he’s constantly about to cry, although that’s just because his light-blue eyes get irritated by the sun. When I ask Clay what he would do if he couldn’t surf, he looks confused for a second, as if he’s unable to imagine such a terrifying possibility. “I don’t know,” he says. “I guess then I would just want to surf.”

In December 2007, Clay was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of “high-functioning” autism. In recent years, as parents and doctors have begun to worry about a possible autism epidemic–a reported 1 in 150 children are now diagnosed with the syndrome–there has been an increased focus on understanding and treating its symptoms, which include impaired social interactions, difficulty with communication, and the tendency to fixate on repetitive behaviors. While Clay has many of these deficits–he’s easily overwhelmed by other people and often struggles to express himself–he also demonstrates one of the distinguishing features of Asperger’s: an “encompassing preoccupation” with a narrow subject. Some children with the syndrome become obsessed with 19th-century trains or coffee makers or The Price Is Right. Others will memorize camera serial numbers, even if they show little interest in photography. Hans Asperger, the Viennese pediatrician who first identified the disorder in 1944, argued that such obsessiveness can be a prerequisite for important achievement, even if it comes at a steep social cost: “It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential,” Asperger wrote. “The necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world … with all abilities canalized into the one specialty.”

What makes Clay unique is that his obsession is a sport, not an abstract intellectual category. While many children with Asperger’s are marked by their lack of coordination–”motor clumsiness” is a very common trait–Clay moves in the water with an uncommon grace. (His movements are much more awkward on dry land; I watched him hit his head on a car door and knock over two water glasses in the span of 15 minutes.) “Clay’s kind of a surfing freak,” nine-time Association of Surfing Professionals world champion Kelly Slater has said. “He’s like a cat. He’s got this ability to always land on his feet. Clay definitely knows things that I don’t know.” Clay’s nickname is “the Rubber-Band Man,” since he’ll consistently stick maneuvers, such as his signature aerial reversal, that aren’t supposed to be possible. He’ll be bent over backwards, his blond hair in the water, and he’ll find a way to stand up.

At the moment, Clay is one of the most celebrated surfers in the world. He already has a national surfing title and numerous Hawaiian titles; he’s been featured on the cover of Surfer magazine and is a mainstay on YouTube, where one of his clips has been watched more than 100,000 times. Although Clay has yet to qualify for the ASP World Tour–a series of competitions featuring the 46 top-ranked surfers–his low ranking hasn’t hindered his reputation for being world-class. Kai Barger, a fellow Maui surfer and the current ASP world junior champion, recently called Clay “the best out of all of us, and it’s all natural. He never had to work at it.”

But Kai is wrong. Although Clay’s body appears to be perfectly designed for the sport–he has a long torso and short legs, which gives him a low center of gravity and the ability to crouch in tight barrels–his real secret is that he’s always in the water. If Clay isn’t surfing (and the only time he’s not surfing is when there are no waves or it’s a moonless night), then he’s probably watching slow-motion videos of himself surfing, which he’s been known to study for ten hours straight. His mom, Jill Marzo, used to be his main videographer. From the time he was seven years old, she would sit on the beach in the shade and record Clay until the camcorder battery ran out. “If I ever missed a good ride, he’d get so upset,” Jill says. “He remembers every single wave. They all kind of look the same to me, but not to Clay. Those waves are what he lives for.”

Jill is used to speaking for her son, since he often struggles to speak for himself. Here on Maui, I’ve watched him flail for words during several interviews with an ESPN news crew, avoiding eye contact and staring instead at the cameras and sound equipment. Even the simplest questions lead to awkward silences and stammers, as if Clay is terrified of saying the wrong thing. And yet, if you’re able to talk to Clay when he’s comfortable–and he’s always most at ease in the warm Hawaiian water–he’s likely to surprise you with his eloquence as he reels off one vivid metaphor after another. He describes the feeling of surfing inside a barrel as “like being inside a throat when someone coughs and spits you out.” When I ask Clay what he loves about waves, he goes silent and looks away. I assume he’s going to ignore my question. But then he utters a line that could easily be his slogan: “Waves are like toys from God.”

There’s a lot more, if you’re interested.

Comments

  1. #1 Moses
    September 8, 2009

    Wish you would have put this on Sullivan’s crap-fest of a blog. There’d have been something worth reading.

  2. #2 jb
    September 8, 2009

    If you love waves and don’t live near Clay or the water, catch the latest Japanese anime by master Hayao Miyazaki. The film “Ponyo” is exquisitely beautiful. The action takes place mostly in or on the water, which is faithfully rendered, even down to the swarms of jellyfish, whose numbers are on the increase, a sign of oceanic degradation due to overfishing and eutrophication. Surfers young and old will appreciate “Ponyo” and its timely message to love all Ponyos: Ponyo as a fish, Ponyo as a bird, Ponyo as a chimp, and Ponyo as a human being.
    To learn more about Clay Marzo we buy the magazine?

  3. #3 David Dobbs
    September 8, 2009

    He DID put it on Sullivan’s blog. Making it one thing among many worth reading.

    Jonah works fast. Man moves to LA, a month later he’s got a surfer story.

    Nice bit of work, Jonah. Stay warm!

  4. #4 Dan Graney B120
    September 8, 2009

    I find the idea that his “disability” actually aids in his ability to perform intriguing. I think this enforces the idea that people who have various types of mental or psychological disorders are not at all useless or less contributive to society. This is a perfect example that promotes that “disabilities” are not disabling in all senses of the word, but can often lead to great achievement and success.

  5. #5 SSB120
    September 8, 2009

    I thought this article was very interesting. It’s great to see an Asperger’s success story, considering the nature of the disorder. While many people with Asperger’s struggle to get by in their day-to-day lives, it’s good to see that some, like Clay, can find a healthy, positive escape from the world that is so foreign to them.

  6. #6 b0k0n0n
    September 8, 2009

    I’m on the autistic spectrum and all I can surf is the net….

  7. #7 William
    September 8, 2009

    I’m on the autistic spectrum and all I can surf is the net….

    You and me both!

    I wonder what I have to do to get my own Jonah Lehrer article…

  8. #8 Gray Gaffer
    September 8, 2009

    I have always thought of Autism as primarily due to a disorder in the ability to prioritize sensory data, leading to sensory overload and consequent shut-down. With Aspergers, there seems to be a side-channel of control which allows for a very narrow and clear focus that – apparently – can not be disturbed by other sensory data. The most commonly successful pursuit I have seen (and myself follow*) for this trait is in the field of computing (I know a lot of old school MIT style Hackers), although I would guess much abstract math and physics thought would also benefit. In particular, complex visualization tasks require such concentration, and if it is available they can seem to ‘run themselves’.

    * I recently scored 47 on a test that rated 39 as clinically suffering from Aspergers’. The level of concentration available to me lets me work in significant environmental noise, eg under a freeway overpass. But it’s not all good. I lose a good 10 – 15 IQ points when I need to venture outside my comfort zone into unfamiliar or crowded social settings (this has been measured, properly, with invigilated Cattell Scale III testing, though that was not the reason for the tests).

  9. #9 Edward Jonathans
    September 10, 2009

    This is fascinating. I’m certain Clay is tapping into the ocean’s rhythm when he’s surfing. IMHO, it help him to regulate physical coordination that evades him on dry land. I know that I’ve NEVER felt most present and engaged than that moment i go shacked under the peeling lip under a full moon at Steamer Lane.

    In my work as an Interactive Metronome therapist I’ve coached Autie’s to improve motor coordination, verbal and non-verbal communication abilities and emotional control.

    Its my belief that these improvements are explained by Dan Levitin in his book “This is Your Brain on Music”. To wit:

    _Music invokes by some of the same neural regions that language does, but far more than language, music taps into the primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward and emotion_. _Computational systems in the brain synchronize neural oscillators with the pulse music and begin to predict when the next strong beat will occur. As the music unfolds the brain constantly updates its estimates for when new beats will occur and takes satisfaction in matching the mental beat with a real-in-the-world one_. _Music speeds up and slows down just as the real world does and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized_.

    Because IM can retrain the brain’s ability to self-regulate using a computerized version of the oldest musical training device…. it makes sense. Links to clinical research studies are available on my web-site. Thanks Jonah!

  10. #10 Balaji Sundaresan
    September 11, 2009

    This is great !!
    Jonah – have u checked out Tyler Cowen’s (of marginal revolution) new book , Create you own economy?
    http://www.amazon.com/Create-Your-Own-Economy-Prosperity/dp/0525951237