Surfer with Asperger’s finds solace in the water

Surfer with Asperger’s finds solace in the water
Clay Marzo finds solace from everything only when he’s in the water. His struggles with Asperger’s syndrome are documented in his new memoir. Photo by DoomaPhotos

ENCINITAS — His maneuvers on a surfboard are as liquid as water itself.

Clay Marzo’s surfing abilities have been likened to Mozart playing the piano and Monet painting — in a word — masterful.

“When I’m out there, nothing else matters,” Marzo said. “I just let everything go and have fun. I suppose…the water calms me.”

That’s how it’s always felt for him to be in the water.

But to be out of the water was, for Marzo, like being a fish out of water.

The discomforts of “normal” life — socializing and relating to other people — would prove suffocating.

By the time he was 17 Marzo was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that includes a tremendous difficulty with social and communication skills.

Clay Marzo and co-author Robert Yehling will be signing copies of “Just Add Water: A Surfing Savant’s Journey with Asperger’s,” July 25 in Carlsbad and Encinitas.  Photo courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Clay Marzo and co-author Robert Yehling will be signing copies of “Just Add Water: A Surfing Savant’s Journey with Asperger’s,” July 25 in Carlsbad and Encinitas. Photo courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Now 26, Marzo’s struggles with living with his condition are documented in the memoir, “Just Add Water: A Surfing Savant’s Journey with Asperger’s,” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26) co-authored by Robert Yehling.

“It’s surreal,” Marzo said of the book. “It’s pretty crazy that people want to hear my story.”

The idea for the book came to light over a dinner at El Callejon restaurant in Encinitas when Mitch Barnes, Marzo’s manager mentioned the idea to Yehling, an Oceanside resident and journalist of almost 40 years.

At first, Yehling, a former sports reporter with the Blade Citizen and surf writer, wasn’t sure about the idea. Usually, books by surfers just don’t do very well in mainstream publishing, he explained.

Yehling knew of Marzo and his surfing abilities ever since he’d won the men’s nationals in 2005, but had only learned of the Asperger’s diagnosis after watching the documentary, “Just Add Water” about him.

“Before that, I just thought this kid’s quirky, and a lot of idiosyncrasies, and sounds like a surfer going his own way to me,” said Yehling. “And that was my impression before he was diagnosed. And obviously since then, it’s a whole different perception.”

Prior to meeting, Yehling began delving into the works of autism advocate and researcher Temple Grandin.

He talked with some longtime friends of his, a married couple in Carlsbad who have a son with Asperger’s. The advice he got: “Until you get in the rhythm of how he communicates, be very, very patient and be ready to have periods of time where you have to say nothing.”

That advice would come to serve Yehling well.

“This was the toughest sustained interviewing project I’ve ever had,” Yehling said. “But it was also one of the most fun.”

On some days, Marzo would be talkative as the two drove around Hawaii, where Marzo lives, with a tape recorder going. And then on other days Marzo would just shut down — there were times when he wouldn’t say a word all day.

When Yehling would sit there and say nothing, he found that the next day, Marzo would be talkative again.

The two shared an instant bond that had nothing at all to do with surfing — the Lakers.

But to get him talking about surfing, Yehling said, you could see the excitement in him. When Marzo started twirling his hair, an idiosyncrasy of his, Yehling explained, it would signal when he was really excited about something.

Yehling believes it’s Marzo’s condition that helps him to see the waves the way he does. “And the reason why is when he goes out in the water, he is the water,” Yehling said.

For Marzo, the wave, he said, looks simply like a “good ride” to him.

Part of what the book aims to achieve is not only to tell the story of one of the world’s best surfers but also celebrate the gifts that a lot of higher-functioning autistic people and people with Asperger’s have, Yehlinger said.

“We should be celebrating their gifts and their way of looking at the world…rather than looking at them with some kind of social stigma,” Yehling said.

The message that Marzo looks to leave people with: “Whatever you’re passionate about go do it.”

Marzo and Yehling will be signing copies of the book at Witt’s Carlsbad Pipelines, 2975 Carlsbad Blvd. at 10 a.m. and at the Encinitas Barnes & Noble, 1040 N. El Camino Real at 2 p.m. July 25.

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