SURFER magazine – September 2008 issue, volume 49 number 09
Article “Molding Clay Marzo” by Chris Mauro and Jake Howard
Naturally, she wanted her son to fit in. When she noticed him retreating more into his world Jill wondered – as any parent would – what the hidden cause was. “What I knew about how he acted didn’t worry me, it was what I didn’t know. After a while, my biggest fear was how other people would react to his little quirks that I was used to,” she says. “Like if he doesn’t know you he has a tough time making eye contact in conversation.”
But even while Clay’s unique personality traits were becoming more pronounced, his athletic prowess in the water kept him center stage. When he was 14 years old, Clay beat every kid in his age group in the 200-freestyle at the Hawaii State Championships. In short order, he became the Lahaina swim team’s secret relay weapon. But just when mom though he might be connecting with a new group of friends, Clay abruptly walked away from the team, citing a severe distaste for Speedos.
“Now I can see that it was much more than that,” says Jill, who’s been doing a lot of retrospective thinking over the past six months. In that time she’s also undergone a life altering transformation, and the incredible sense of relief she’s feeling is “totally indescribable.” Her anxiety – the anxiety that’s been eating at her for well over a decade has been all but vanished. The reason? Jill’s finally been given a crystal clear window into her son’s mind, and the beauty she’s finally discovered there has changed everything. “I have a whole new appreciation for Clay today. I can honestly say I finally understand my son.”
The new view came via the confirmation, just six months ago, that Clay has Asperger’s syndrome, the mildest and highest functioning form of autism. While this came as quite a shock to some, for many of those in Clay’s inner circle, especially those who’ve been delving into research, it makes complete sense. It explains perfectly almost all of Clay’s familiar patterns of behavior. “We understand now how his brain handles – or doesn’t handle – sensory overload. Looking back at the swim team stuff, it’s pretty obvious that the crowds and hoopla from strangers was just too much for him,” she explains. Those are the kind of dots she and others have been connecting ever since doctors confirmed his test results.
Asperger’s syndrome got its name from Hans Asperger, and Austrian physician who defined the condition in 1944 (although the medical community didn’t officially recognize the syndrome until 15 years ago when autism awareness was just coming into its own). What confounded physicians for years was the inability to define autism in black and white terms. It has many faces, and its wide variety of disorders make up a very broad spectrum with several shades of grey – from the high functioning brand of Asperger’s syndrome to the incredibly debilitating variety of autism that renders its victims in need of constant aid; it all essentially depends on which neurotransmitters in the brain are being affected.
While Clay’s symptoms are very mild, the socially debilitating hang-ups he suffers from are linked directly to the more negative affects of Asperger’s. The more obvious are the lack of eye contact in social situations and his inability to demonstrate the empathy he feels for friends and loved ones – both classic traits of Asperger’s. Other characteristics, while more quirky, can be just as intolerable if uncontrolled, like his routines. There’s also his intense preoccupation with narrow subjects and his incessant hand wringing, plus more endearing gifts, like his incredible memory and complete inability to lie.