FAST FINGERS: The World Cube Association hosts nearly 200 competitions each year, during which contestants solve Rubik’s Cube-style puzzles as fast as they can.

ALEX GOODLETT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

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Puzzle Solver

Meet the reigning Rubik’s Cube champ

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: What are some different ways people deal with challenges in their lives?

The room is silent as 17-year-old Max Park studies the Rubik’s Cube-style puzzle on the table in front of him. Each side of the toy has four rows of four squares showing a jumble of colors. When Max is ready, he lifts his hands from the table and picks up the cube. A timer begins counting and his fingers fly, twisting and turning the toy at a lightning-fast pace. Max drops the cube back onto the table. Each side now shows one solid color. It took him only 18.42 seconds to solve—a new world record.

The crowd watching the feat at a competition last year erupted into cheers and applause. Max’s dad, Schwan Park, was nearby clapping too. He was proud not just of his son’s most recent accomplishment but also of how far Max had come to get there. That’s because Max has autism. This condition can make it hard for people to communicate, socialize, and sense the world around them (see Understanding Autism).

The room is silent. 17-year-old Max Park studies the puzzle on the table in front of him. The puzzle is in the style of a Rubik’s Cube. Each side of the toy has four rows of four squares in a mix of colors. When Max is ready, he picks up the cube. A timer begins counting and his fingers fly. He twists and turns the toy at lightning speed. Max drops the cube back onto the table. Each side now shows one solid color. It took him only 18.42 seconds to solve. That’s a new world record.

A crowd was watching at this contest last year. They cheered and clapped. Max’s dad, Schwan, clapped too. He was proud of his son’s latest feat, but he was also proud of how far Max had come to get there. That’s because Max has autism. This condition can make it hard for people to communicate, socialize, and sense the world around them (see Understanding Autism).

COURTESY OF RUBIK’S CUBE/WWW.RUBIKS.COM

GREAT MINDS: Max (right) stands next to Ernö Rubik, the inventor of the Rubik’s Cube.

Park and his wife, Miki, first realized there was something different about Max when he was about 6 months old. He didn’t react to loud noises and seemed to live in his own world. As Max grew, he had a hard time engaging with others and making eye contact. He struggled to understand nonverbal cues, like pointing and people’s facial expressions. Max also had a hard time with tasks that required fine motor skills, such as picking up coins and placing them in a piggy bank. Then someone handed him a Rubik’s Cube.

Max’s parents thought manipulating the toy could help improve their son’s dexterity. Little did they know it would end up changing his life. Today Max is one of the world’s best speedcubers—people devoted to solving cube puzzles as fast as humanly possible.

Park and his wife, Miki, noticed something when Max was about 6 months old. He didn’t react to loud noises, and he seemed to live in his own world. As Max grew, he had a hard time talking with others and making eye contact. He struggled to understand nonverbal cues, like pointing and the looks on people’s faces. Max also had a hard time with fine motor skills. For example, picking up coins and putting them in a piggy bank wasn’t easy. Then someone handed him a Rubik’s Cube.

Max’s parents wanted him to handle the toy. They thought it could help improve his motor skills. But they didn’t know it would change his life. Today, Max is one of the world’s best speedcubers. These people work to solve cube puzzles as fast as humanly possible.

BRAINTEASING TOY

Rubik’s Cubes first became popular in the 1980s. Each side of the original cube contained nine colored squares in three rows of three. The cube’s squares could be rearranged in 43 quintillion different ways. (That’s 43 followed by 18 zeros!) It’s no wonder that most people who picked up the puzzle quickly got frustrated. It even took Ernö Rubik, the toy’s designer, more than a month to solve his own invention (see Cube Creator). After remaining a fad for a few years, the Rubik’s Cube craze ended. But the toy didn’t go away completely.

Three decades later, the cubes have made a comeback. With access to the internet, people can go online to learn tricks to figure out the cubes. Toy makers have also developed new models that turn faster—bringing out people’s competitiveness. And they now sell more-complex cubes in different sizes and shapes. As a result, speedcubing contests have taken off.

Rubik’s Cubes became popular in the 1980s. The first cube had nine colored squares in three rows of three on each side. The cube’s squares could be moved around in 43 quintillion different ways. (That’s 43 followed by 18 zeros!) Many people picked up the puzzle, but most of them quickly gave up. Ernö Rubik created the toy, but it still took him more than a month to solve his own puzzle (see Cube Creator). The Rubik’s Cube was a fad for a few years, and then the craze ended. But the toy didn’t go away completely.

Three decades later, the cubes have made a comeback. Now people have access to the internet. They can go online to learn tricks to solve the cubes. Toy makers have also made new models that turn faster. That makes people want to compete. And trickier cubes in different sizes and shapes are now sold. As a result, speedcubing contests have taken off.

GAME ON

Max became fascinated with speedcubing after watching videos on YouTube. He practiced with his Rubik’s Cube constantly. Then, when he was 10, he asked to participate in his first competition. His parents agreed. They thought it could be a great opportunity for their son to learn to interact with others. “We didn’t care if he won,” says Park. “We just wanted him to practice waiting in line, taking his turn, and listening to directions.”

At the event, Max’s parents noticed that he recognized the faces of speedcubers he’d seen on YouTube. He remembered their cube-solving times and was excited to see them in person. Best of all, Max seemed to be having fun.

Max watched speedcubing videos on YouTube, and he was fascinated. He practiced with his Rubik’s Cube constantly. When he was 10, he asked to take part in his first contest. His parents agreed. They thought it could be a great way for Max to learn to interact with others. “We didn’t care if he won,” says Park. “We just wanted him to practice waiting in line, taking his turn, and listening to directions.”

At the event, Max’s parents noticed something. Max had seen these speedcubers on YouTube, and now he recognized their faces. He remembered their cube-solving times and was excited to see them in person. Best of all, Max seemed to be having fun.

COURTESY OF CHRISTOPHER YU OLSON

WINNING TIME: Max took first place at the 2017 Rubik’s Cube World Championships.

When it was time for Max to compete, his parents weren’t sure what to expect. He would have to solve five scrambled puzzles as quickly as he could. Max was allowed 15 seconds to inspect each one before the timer started. To tally his score, judges would throw out his fastest and slowest times and average the remaining three. Max stepped up to the challenge.

When he finished, says Schwan Park, “we asked a bystander, ‘Is his time any good?’” The person replied, “Top 100 in the world.” His parents just shrugged. Maybe there were only 100 people in the world doing this, they told themselves. In reality, the number is closer to 100,000. A huge group of kids and adults all over the world are into cubing just like Max.

The time came for Max to compete. His parents weren’t sure what to expect. He would have to solve five scrambled puzzles as quickly as he could. Max could take 15 seconds to look at each one. Then the timer would start. To add up his score, judges would throw out his fastest and slowest times. They would average the other three. Max stepped up to the challenge.

Schwan Park says that when Max finished, “we asked a bystander, ‘Is his time any good?’ ” The person answered, “Top 100 in the world.” His parents just shrugged. Maybe there were only 100 people in the world doing this, they thought. But really, the number is closer to 100,000. A huge group of kids and adults all over the world are into cubing just like Max.

ALEX GOODLETT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

PUZZLE UPKEEP: Speedcubers clean and oil their cubes so they turn as fast as possible.

The next time Max’s parents took him to a competition, he came in second place. Five years later, he set his first world record. At last count, Max held 29 records in six different speedcubing events. They include fastest average times for solving four different-sized cubes: a 4 x 4, a 5 x 5, a 6 x 6, and a 7 x 7. He also holds the record for fastest average time for solving the traditional 3 x 3 cube—one-handed.

When Max’s parents took him to his next contest, he came in second place. Five years later, he set his first world record. At last count, Max held 29 records in six different speedcubing events. They include fastest average times for solving four cubes of different sizes. These cubes are a 4 x 4, a 5 x 5, a 6 x 6, and a 7 x 7. He also holds a record for the original 3 x 3 cube. That record is for fastest average time solving it—with one hand.

FINDING HIS PLACE

Max’s parents are thrilled that Max stumbled upon something he loves doing—and does better than almost anyone else in the world. But more important, they’re excited about how speedcubing has helped him feel comfortable just saying hello to people he meets.

Max’s parents are thrilled. Max found something he loves doing, and he does it better than almost anyone else in the world. They’re excited that speedcubing has helped him feel comfortable just saying hello to people he meets. And that’s more important.

ALEX GOODLETT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

CUBING CROWD: Competitors practice before last year’s CubingUSA Nationals.

Around his fellow speedcubers, Max seems to have found his voice. Feliks Zemdegs, a record-holding Australian speedcuber, first met Max at the Cubing World Championship in 2017. “Max’s autism made it challenging to hold regular conversations,” Zemdegs recalls. “But it seemed as if he could talk about speedcubing for days straight.”

Max’s parents always hoped their son would get to this point. Park says they went from being told that their son had autism and would need assistance for the rest of his life to him showing them what was possible: “Max made us rethink everything.”

Max seems to have found his voice around other speedcubers. Feliks Zemdegs is a record-holding Australian speedcuber. He first met Max at the Cubing World Championship in 2017. “Max’s autism made it challenging to hold regular conversations,” Zemdegs recalls. “But it seemed as if he could talk about speedcubing for days straight.”

Max’s parents always hoped their son would get to this point. Park remembers how they were told that their son had autism and would need help for the rest of his life. Now Max is showing them what’s possible: “Max made us rethink everything.”