LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — By no stretch of the imagination had Cody Clark solved the Rubik's cube. The puzzle in the magician’s left hand was a scattered mess of colors.
But Clark is autistic, and his mind works differently.
Moments before, he’d passed a second cube around the audience and let the crowd twist it at random. Right, left, up, down, backward, forward — and just one more turn for good measure — they jumbled the colored sides.
Then he held the two blocks side-by-side and rotated them, revealing he’d copied the disorganization from the crowd’s cube to his own in a split second.
The audience cheered.
He solved the puzzle — he’d just done it in a way no one expected.
It's a trick that serves as a metaphor for how he sees the world, and it's the method he’s been using to educate crowds about autism through his "A Different Way of Thinking" magic show. What started as a project for the Slant Culture Festival in Louisville five years ago has morphed into a traveling show that has appeared at Fringe Festivals and libraries throughout the country.
The 26-year-old Louisville man is part magician, part comedian and part advocate. From the moment he takes the stage — just as the name of his show suggests — you can tell he's different.
You can see it in the way his face moves and hear it in his inflections, but the traits of his autism become less apparent as he tells his story.
Trick by trick, Clark does more than pull coins and scarves from thin air.
He pulls out his vulnerability for everyone to see.
‘A DIFFERENT WAY OF THINKING’
Clark didn’t set out to be a self-advocate. He just wanted to be a magician.
Today, he runs a three-prong magic business. In addition to his advocacy show, he also does sensory-friendly performances for children under his Conductor Cody persona. Tricks like tearing up train tickets and putting them back together give children with autism both a chance to see magic and a young, successful man with autism perform it.
Some days, too, he leaves advocacy out of his acts entirely and just performs. He's opened for world-famous magician Lance Burton, a fellow Butler High School graduate, and he filmed an audition tape for "Penn & Teller Fool Us" on The CW.
He'd found the hobby after seeing a magic show during a vacation in the early 2000s. When a magician called him on stage at the Bart Rockett Theater in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and let him participate in the act, it changed his life.
Growing up, Clark struggled with activities like sports and making friends. The way Clark tells it, Bart Rockett took a kid who'd never felt like he was good at anything and put him in front of a cheering audience.
He was hooked.
Within about a year, he joined the Louisville Magic Club and began performing in public for anyone who would watch him. He enrolled at the University of Louisville, where he studied marketing and minored in theater. One branch of his education taught him to market himself, and the other fostered the stage presence he needed to succeed.
That was fun for a while, but then Clark met the harsh reality of show business. Self admittedly, he was terrible on stage.
Magic isn't an easy business, said Brent Braun, who owns J&B Magic Shop and Theater in New Albany, Indiana, and doubles as a magic consultant. He's known Clark for almost 15 years, and in that time, he's watched him grow from a child into a professional.
Children have an in with spectators, Braun said. They're adorable, and they're trying. Even when they're not Harry Houdini, people like watching cute kids do magic.
It gets harder when that cute factor disappears and puberty sets in. Add Clark's autism into the equation, and there are several other challenges to overcome, Braun said.
As part of his autism, his muscles are naturally weaker. He went through therapy to strengthen them as a small child, but the nimbleness that sleight-of-hand requires for magic doesn't always come as naturally to him, he told me when we spoke in late November.
He has to be personable and engaging, which takes energy because his autism limits his facial expressions. Even at the college level, he said, other students would make fun of his performances and his magic.
Then Clark got some life-changing advice from a mentor.
"There are no secrets on stage," Clark remembered hearing. "Everyone in this theater department already kind of knows you're autistic, so why don’t you just confirm it."
So he crafted a trick that referenced the Dustin Hoffman movie "Rain Man" and some of the autism stereotypes in it.
After the big reveal, he left the class speechless. Showing his whole self onstage made the mocking stop.
That trick and a separate rejection from Teresa Willis with the Slant Culture Festival defined the next five years for Clark.
It wasn't that he wasn't talented or that his act wasn't good, she said of the rejection, but they had a high bar for their performances. He needed to be more than just a kid doing magic. She wanted him to tell his story and use his magic to move the narrative forward.
"That’s theater, and that’s using your special talents to say something and create a message in the world," she said.
For years Clark’s autism was something he kept to himself. Sometimes people overcompensate, he told me, and the programs that are designed to help him make things worse. That's why self-advocacy is so important to him. People with autism need to be leading the conversations about autism.
He came back the next year with a script for "A Different Way of Thinking," and he got the gig.
LEAVING TRUE VULNERABILITY ON STAGE
His tricks are truly astonishing, but perhaps his greatest feat has been overcoming his initial prognosis.
What doctors told his parents 25 years ago was far from magical. It was all-out grim.
When Clark stopped responding to his name as a toddler, his family was given a list of worst-case-scenarios — their son would always be an outsider and abnormal. He was likely destined for assisted living communities and unemployment. A college degree was a long-shot.
And no matter how much they cared about him and supported him, he may never say “I love you” in return.
There's no all-encompassing prognosis for people with autism, Clark told me, and what doctors originally said is not at all what his reality has been. That's part of the reason he spends so much of "A Different Way of Thinking" talking about the people and places he cares about in his show.
In one trick he talks about how his grandmother would calm his tantrums, which were a symptom of his autism, with Velveeta mac and cheese. As he tells the audience about his "me-maw" and cracks jokes about the Midwest's favorite cheese-like product, he makes three bricks of it appear from a seemingly empty paper bag.
And just when you think nothing else can come out of it, he tips the bag upside down and dried noodles rain out of it, too.
Yes, he wants you to see the magic and that "wow" moment.
But he also wants you to see he has a grandmother he loves dearly, too.
A smile spread across his lips as he explained how happy he was his grandmother had lived to see him create that Velveeta trick.
"I love you" isn't difficult for him, but some common autism symptoms, and yes, some stereotypes do apply to him, he said.
He fixated on trains and railroads as a child, and he begged his parents to let him quit the baseball team. He tells both stories in his show while using magic to make a Thomas the Tank Engine train appear and shuffling tiny baseballs underneath pint-sized helmets with the help of a mini Louisville Slugger bat.
His autism allows him to obsess on things in a way others typically may not. When he's trying to overcome something like stage fright or learning to make friends, he reads about it and studies it, he told me.
When seven words are wrong in his show, Clark works harder on those seven words than some magicians work on an entire act, Braun said of Clark's determination.
But he also runs his own business when autism can cause some people to struggle with "executive functioning," or planning out their day. He doesn't shy away from networking opportunities, which is another hurdle for some people with autism, but he also has a list of talking points in his head to help him navigate those situations. If something goes wrong in a conversation, he told me he has no shame in stepping out of the room and regrouping before venturing out into a crowd again.
He's interested in having a romantic relationship, too, but that's something he hasn't been able to clinch just yet.
And it's one of the most vulnerable moments on stage for him.
As he tells the story of his first heartbreak, he rips and crumples a giant tissue paper red heart.
He tells the audience about a girl he was friends with in high school. He wanted something more, but he couldn't work up the courage to ask for it.
Then she started dating someone else.
From the audience, you can hear the pain in his voice and how much he cares about this young woman when he mangles that paper into nothing.
You can see how helpless and broken he felt as it rests beyond repair on the ground.
But he doesn't fix the paper heart. That wouldn't be true to his story.
Magic can't fix everything.
Instead, he picks up the pieces and a shower of red confetti flies from his hand.
"We can pretend magic is real and this a fairy tale, and that when Cody walks out of here, he gets all the money and all the women he wants," Braun said.
"We can pretend that, but that’s not really real at all," he continued. “So to not only be vulnerable but to leave yourself vulnerable on stage is really hard as a performer.”
Clark didn't get to be in love with this girl, but he did get to be her friend.
There's a different kind of beauty to that, and it's something that brought the audience to roaring applause at the end of his show.
"As good as the magic is, the audience remembers me more than the magic," Clark said.