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Review of Just Add Water: A Surfing Savant's Journey with Asperger's

"In this stressed out world, he operates with a frame of mind that treats every moment like it's both the first and last. Isn't that what millions who take mindfulness, yoga, or meditation class seek?"

--Robert Yehling, author of Just Add Water: A Surfing Savant's Journey with Autism, on former champion surfer Clay Marzo, who also has Asperger's

Just Add Water is a fish out of water story about the redemption that staying true to yourself in the face of unimaginable adversity ultimately brings. It begins in the would-be paradise of Maui, where young Clay Marzo begins surfing from seemingly the moment he can walk. Such natural talent, however, makes perfect sense, as Clay’s mother Jill, father Gino, and older brother Cheyne, are all accomplished surfers in their own right. Making less sense to everyone around him are Clay’s odd behaviors and struggles to fit in anywhere outside of the ocean, a theme that will play out throughout the book, even after he’s diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 18.

Autism parents will undoubtedly both nod and cringe with feelings of familiarity when reading Just Add Water. (For me, the father of an 11-year-old daughter with high functioning autism, there were no less than 4 traits detailed about Marzo that are so similar to my daughter that I got goose bumps each time.) For Clay, school is a nightmare of bullies and rigid educators who don’t begin to understand him while home is characterized by a deep divide between his parents as to how to best help their highly unique child. For Jill, that means seeking answers through frequent testing and modifying environments—an approach the old fashioned Gino, who just thinks his son should focus more—abhors. Classic autism behaviors such as narrow interests (in Clay’s case, his only interest for most of the book is surfing), vigorous hand-rubbing when excited, fixating on one person, a total lack of self-awareness, poor-to-non-existent executive functioning, and an aversion to crowds and loud noises, seem to suggest such a diagnosis should have been obvious well before he hit 18. Nevertheless, it’s hard to find too much fault with the loving Gino’s understandable lack of understanding. Readers must bear in mind Clay’s formative years were 15-20 years ago, a dark age when “autism awareness” was more embryonic slogan than societal reality, leaving the Marzo Family and Clay to forge ahead blindly without so many of the supports we possess today.

Forge ahead they do, as Clay’s freakish gifts for surfing are noticed before he even hits his teens. He signs a six-figure deal with surf clothing giant Quiksilver, who whisks the cripplingly withdrawn, routine-oriented Marzo all over the globe for photo shoots in exotic locales. Competitions feature early success, especially when tangible items like a car versus the more abstract money are at stake, but Clay’s ensuing social challenges and inability to manage his time don’t sit well with many of higher ups paying him so well at Quiksilver, particularly during a sponsor dinner in which Marzo says very little before putting on headphones. Still, it’s the support of Quiksilver executives and the company’s quest for an explanation about their misunderstood star that finally leads to the Asperger’s diagnosis and answers the dedicated Jill long fought so hard to receive. A 2008 documentary entitled Just Add Water (not to be confused with this book) ensues, giving the surfing-themed film the rarified status of mainstream hit on the festival circuit and making Clay—and his Asperger’s—something of a household brand.

The pitfalls surrounding a young person with Asperger’s and fame should be apparent and, despite his popularity, the pure Clay’s aversion to the stifling, cutthroat nature of lucrative competitions and a poor economy leads to Quiksilver eventually dropping him. This is followed by other setbacks, including becoming estranged from his idol Cheyne. Surf glory seems to become a distant notion for Clay and, for the anxious Jill, the notion is terrifying: How will her son provide for himself and grown independent in his adult life minus his one and only possible source of income?

While Yehling doesn’t condescend to his readers by presenting villains, Just Add Water doesn’t lack for heroes and, standing above all, is Jill. Her realistic view of her gifted son’s flaws and her well-managed emotions toward others who struggle to deal effectively with him provides a constructive model autism parents such as myself can learn a great deal from. Still, her terror during this time of great uncertainty for a parent is palpable. “I wake up in the middle of the night with cold sweats. I don’t know how other mothers with kids wired differently cope with it when kids are grown adults,” she acknowledges, striking a cord autism mother and fathers can relate all-too-well to. Whether or not Clay can move past his surfing glory and overcome the challenges of his Asperger’s to evolve toward becoming a whole person makes up the subtly thrilling conflict remaining in the story.

Just Add Water is a book that will undoubtedly have an initial appeal to what are essentially two subcultures complete with their own vernaculars, mores, and rabid consumers: surfing and autism. To limit the universal themes of the story to just surfing and autism, however, is a mistake. Yehling does such a fine job educating the reader about surfing (subject matter with which he approached the project quite familiar) and autism (clearly newer to him but it works brilliantly for the tonality of the story, reflecting the increased knowledge of the Marzo Family and society as a whole) that almost any reader can move past what may be unfamiliar and enjoy the book greatly.

Just Add Water is available in stores tomorrow, July 14th, and on Amazon and other online stores. I highly recommend this tremendous book to readers of all tastes.

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