Free! is a light-hearted series that often makes you laugh, its comedic and fanservice elements as well as tropes not rarely being over the top as is often the case in anime. Haru as the protagonist in particular embodies a character type that is visibly less expressive — vocally, emotionally, physically — than most characters; it is something that defines him and sets him apart as an anime character within the series itself (next to, say, “the childhood friend” and “the upbeat boy”), and is also sometimes played for laughs. He occasionally behaves seemingly inappropriately, whether in his lack of visible response or due to the lack of so-called “common sense”, and there are times when he’s quite blunt.
Things Said and Harm Caused
Haru’s character type sometimes appears in media (see Autistic Headcanons for a personal selection), and when you browse the internet for people’s reactions, you’ll often see the following range of comments:
- X must have autism/Asperger’s because they obviously have mental problems and no common sense!
- X is a high-functional autist: Something about them is off and they fail at social interaction, but they still function.
- X is suffering from autism: They’re a genius in this one field, but can’t handle basic things in life.
- X’s autism is what makes them rude. It’s a fact that people with autism are jerks, but they can’t help it because they just don't get it, and have no social skills.
- X’s autism gives them the mental age of a child. They’re very pure, loyal and honest.
Or you might see the following when characters are read as autistic by actually autistic people:
- X can’t be autistic, they seem normal to me. They’re just introverted and a bit awkward. Don’t blow it out of proportion!
- X can’t have autism, they have no special skill. Only savants have autism.
- X is too intelligent to be autistic.
- X can’t be suffering from autism because I know someone with autism and they’re not like this.
- The author said X isn’t autistic, so X can’t be autistic, bug off!
- You’re reading too much into it. This wasn’t created for you!
- It’s offensive to say someone has autism!
- Stop mocking autism! X's traits are all just stereotypes.
- Stop glorifying autism and throwing out diagnoses at fictional characters! Autism ruins lives and isn’t some kind of quirk!
- This wasn’t created with any intention of progressive political or social statement, but as entertainment. Don’t drag depressing reality into fiction!
There are a lot of wrong and harmful things in comments like these (including word choice), depending on the situation and the speaker. Some of these statements are misguided, made with lack of proper understanding of the autism spectrum and born from false internalized messages. Others — note that the phrasing in the list above is quite tame — are specifically made with malicious intent, or at the very least meant to be derogatory with regard to autism. It isn’t, for example, uncommon to see the word “retard” in this context, and on the internet, autism has become a derogatory term to be flung around as an insult: a different way to call someone “socially retarded”. However, all of the comments are made on the same basis: In all these cases, the people commenting aren’t understanding — or are refusing to understand — that these remarks are hurtful and harmful.
Why hurtful? Because autistic people exist, and many of these traits apply to them, and living with them is their reality — a reality which includes people who make all these off-hand remarks without considering the people affected by them. The comments above presume to know what autism is and who can and can’t be autistic (mostly made by people who aren’t autistic, and mostly revolving around dead-beaten stereotypes), invalidate the autistic identity of people who may or may not display a specific trait, and alternate between presenting autism as some kind of joke (in the case of characters who show no “common sense” in comedic situations) or, among other things, as an unspeakable and undesirable horror: something that is inherently negative.
Why harmful? Because these messages are made by uninformed or misinformed people, and by widely spreading these views, they are perpetuating said false information: Not only does that leave others with the impression that these statements are correct, it also gives them a free pass to make that kind of remark themselves — after all, if everyone does it (which includes casually mentioning autism as a joke), it can’t be wrong, right? To the people who leave comments as the ones above, these are thoughts only entertained in passing, but to autistic people, these comments shape the opinions of the environment they have to interact with: an environment that, more often than not, already has a hard time warming up and accommodating to people who break out of the norm.
As you can see, plenty of the remarks above contradict each other as well, all so as to silence autistic people from every angle. That has real repercussions too: As people can’t understand and accept that autism is a wide spectrum, instead believing that there is only “one true way” to be autistic (which they absorb from media), it is no surprise that autistic people in need of accommodation and understanding are denied any support for the very same reasons as the ones used to both stereotype and dismiss autistic readings of characters.
What’s more, autistic characters (who have been confirmed to be autistic) are very rare, as autistic people aren’t receiving adequate representation in media. In the absence of canonically autistic characters, autistic people seek out characters who they can relate to: characters who may not have been intended to be on the spectrum, but dominantly display traits that are associated with autism.
Now imagine constantly having difficulty fitting in and worrying about how “off” you seemingly are compared to those around you, because the things that come naturally to others don’t come naturally to you, and because you are awkward in a way that isn’t as “cute” as media usually presents it as. And you can’t ever quite find anyone just like you in the media you enjoy, and you start thinking that perhaps you are a singularity after all: someone too weird for anyone to possibly have anything in common with. (”Surely, media must be an accurate representation of reality!”)
Until, one day, you do find a character you can relate to in all the ways you cannot relate to anyone else. So you latch on to that character, because on some level, the existence of that character validates your own experiences, your own difficulties. You come to identify with the character, seeing how there is no one else to identify with. You decide to look up what other people have to say about the character — perhaps, if they love and appreciate the character in the way other fictional characters are loved and appreciated, you will one day be accepted as who you are as well, even with your “peculiarities”.
But the internet doesn’t have anything kind to say. The character you’ve come to love is written off as a joke, a “retard”, someone who makes things awkward and troublesome for anyone around them just by occupying space, someone who is too much of a caricature to be considered believable, lovable — real. And that means, by extension, that you aren’t real — even if you were, you’d exist as a joke. That implication by the mass of voices is what hurts, all the more so because there are so few characters that you can relate to in the first place.
If there were more such characters, especially characters whose “peculiarities” weren’t written as the constant punchline of jokes, and even more so characters who were confirmed to be autistic by writers who are not afraid to take responsibility and do their research properly (instead of injecting autistic traits into characters while denying their being autistic so as to have “more freedom”), perhaps these characters would stop being treated as a joke and instead exist on equal footing with any other character. If such characters appeared more often, perhaps the broad mass would understand that they, too, have a place in narratives, and thus in life. (Again: ”Surely, media must be an accurate representation of reality!”) Finally, if such characters were no longer treated as an oddity, there’s hope that with time, you and people like you will stop being treated as oddities.
Motivation and Goals
Let me make one thing very clear: This shrine is not a “diagnosis” for a character. Haruka Nanase is not autistic as he was not written as an autistic character. In fact, several things that come up over the course of the series are part of Free!’s over-the-top humour rather than something that “warrants” deeper reading. That does not, however, change that many of Haru’s characteristics apply to autistic people (even the things that are meant to be humorous), and that they may relate to him specifically due to that — and that is not something to be begrudged.
Waterbound was created as an acknowledgement of the importance of representation, but also as an acknowledgement that in the absence of representation, there are things that need to be said, and weight that needs to be placed on personal readings: If space is given to analyses and interpretations of any other character on any given subject, space, too, can be given to an autistic reading of a character even if one such interpretation may not be as widely accepted just yet. (Thanks for the encouragement, Larissa. ❤) As with any other shrine of mine, I want Waterbound to be about joy: the joy of sharing a certain reading.
I don’t assume that visitors of this shrine are overly familiar with autism, and it’s understandable that not anyone would look up information sites about the autism spectrum if it holds no significance in their current everyday life. While it can be difficult and tedious to grasp something that is abstract because it is of no concern to you, things are far more enjoyable to learn about when linked to an element that is within one’s sphere of interest.
More importantly, it’s easier to see information in a wider context (rather than in isolation) when it is linked to something specific. Waterbound thus uses Haru as an example to show that autism is not just about one or two traits (with “lack of common sense”, “rudeness in the absence of social skills” and “brilliancy at the cost of everything else” being the most frequently cited associations), but an interplay of many different traits that make up the spectrum. (It is very exasperating to repeatedly read comments that link a character to autism the moment social awkwardness or the lack of “common sense” is established. Those things alone don’t make up autism in any way.)
Lastly, I think of autism as a neurotype rather than a disorder (see here for a nuanced article) — which doesn’t change that it is a disability — and will address it as such throughout the shrine: as something that colours the way you perceive and interact with the world, rather than something that is wrong with you. For the same reason, I will be using identity-first language throughout the shrine: “autistic person” rather than “person with autism”. Whether or not autism is something to be celebrated and personally accepted as part of one’s identity is up to each person to decide. I do, however, hope that in seeing and understanding a character from the perspective of autism, the character as well as the traits associated with autism and thus autistic people can come to be accepted as normal — by those not yet familiar with the spectrum as well as those on the spectrum. At the very least, I’d like for this shrine to contribute to that slow and long process.
For those of you who are on the spectrum, I hope that in embracing and liking a character from this perspective, you can embrace and like yourself even more.
For a more personal look at my motivations, see Autistic Haru at the end of the shrine.
I’m not a professional who works with autism, nor have I formally studied autism — but I also disagree that only professionals are qualified to speak about autism. What I present on this shrine is the voice of an autistic person who has read up a fair bit on the subject, including what many other people on the spectrum have had to say, formally and casually. My experiences, knowledge and opinions are necessarily subjective: My views and my interpretations on both autism as well as Haru aren’t presented as truth or fact, and other opinions exist — including the opinions of autistic people. Also keep in mind that autism is a wide spectrum: No autistic person is like another, and their experiences regarding any particular trait can vastly differ.
This shrine is not intended to be a comprehensive overview and introduction to autism, and there are inevitably aspects of the spectrum that I won’t be covering because they do not apply to Haru. If I get something terribly wrong or if you have any concerns or suggestions, I am more than willing to listen and to make alterations as needed. Just do not accuse me of presenting a wrong image of autism when all that Waterbound is is one window into autism.