Waterbound started out as a Tumblr post in 2013, where I shared my observations regarding an autistic interpretation of Haru’s personality and behaviour. The post received some attention, and I toyed with the idea of expanding on it. My original intention was to do so in a series of posts that would provide commentary on specific scenes as I rewatch Free!, each of them accompanied by screencaps and focusing on traits strongly associated with autism.
When I returned to Amassment in 2015, I found Gifted, Robin’s shrine to Frozen’s Elsa. Rather than being the “usual” kind of shrine, it focuses solely on Elsa’s gift and the way it was handled by her environment. The shrine then goes on to talk about personal disabilities and Robin’s experiences with a child who needed accommodation in the classroom due to not being able to conform to the norm. This is followed by a comparison between Elsa and said child, and musings about how to treat Elsa’s gift in the shoes of a parent. Rather than being criticism on the writing within the movie, the whole shrine pretty much treats Elsa as a real person (despite the magical elements present in Elsa’s world), and earnestly thinks about ways to do not just Elsa, but real children in similar situations justice.
I was very impressed by the way Robin managed to combine observations on a fictional character with experiences so firmly rooted in reality — the kind that you don’t usually see being addressed in such detail and with such care in media as well as analyses of said media — and her drive to make an actual site to all of it. Her shrine showed me that it is fully possible to write about a character so as to teach and bring awareness to very real issues. Most of all, without Robin, I would never have thought that such thoughts on a character were… well, deserving of a site. Blog posts yes, but not an entire site. Robin’s Gifted is such a fresh approach to fansites and the ways to convey what a character means to someone on a very personal level.
Gifted also made me remember an essay by DrWorm that I had read a long time ago, most likely in my adolescence around 2006: Death Note’s L and Autism. I don’t have any strong feelings on this subject, and not all points in the autism overview are things I agree on (to be fair, that essay is quite old), just as other autistic people don’t necessarily agree with any autistic readings of characters or don’t relate to the character in question. But it does feel… quite weird to think about it now, because that essay may have been my first contact with autism, not to mention autistic readings of fictional characters.
I learned very late that I was autistic (beginning of 2010, towards the end of my school years), and due to things I’ve gone through and the autistic experience in general, I keep wishing I had known much much sooner. The reason it’s weird to think about this essay now is because I still remember reading it and making a fleeting remark to someone I was close to that the essay might apply to me as well. I can’t recall what I thought about all the points made in it aside from the point on touch sensitivity, but I know that my conversation partner responded with: “You can’t have autism, autism is something entirely different!”
While I may not have strong feelings about whether or not L can be read as autistic, in retrospect, meaning from the viewpoint of someone who has read up extensively on it, I think the vehemency with which the possibility of my being autistic was shot down right away is just one of many incidents that shows that people have the wrong idea about autism — especially the fact that it is an entire spectrum, and that within that spectrum, people can be drastically different from one another, just like anyone else. Sharing the neurotype with someone doesn’t make your interests, personality or lifestyle the same: It means that there’s a set of difficulties and ways to experience things that you have in common and can relate to.
In more recent years, I find myself drawn to articles, blog entries and studies that focus on stressing the diversity within the spectrum and the common as well as varying accommodation that that may require. I’m also very interested in reading up about how autism manifests in girls and women, which is very different from what is strongly — and superficially — associated with autism, especially with autism as it is presented in media. I assume that one of the reasons I didn’t find out I was autistic sooner is partly because of the two points just mentioned: generalization of traits, their manifestation and their severity, and girls being better at “masking” certain traits.
I’ve spoken about representation before in a slightly different context, but I’d like to reiterate here that lack of representation and proper representation is preventing things from becoming a reality. Had I done more research on autism following the aforementioned essay, I wonder whether the autism spectrum may have resonated with me even more, and whether I might have brought it up to a psychologist or school counsellor sooner, back when nobody could figure out just what exactly was doing so much damage to my psyche (the result of not fitting in and not understanding why). Had I seen more characters with traits associated with autism being talked about, I wonder whether I might have connected the dots; had I seen canonically autistic characters, had my environment been familiar with autism thanks to proper representation, and so on and so forth. I wonder.
Waterbound was created to talk about a character who displays many traits associated with autism, to fill a niche that I couldn’t find in my own adolescence. I think it’s just as important to earnestly talk about something as specific/abstract (depending on your viewpoint) and personal as this, and to address these readings in depth — in a nuanced way that does not just stick to stereotypical and wrong as well as harmful portrayals in media. People connect through fiction and media, and people relate to fictional characters — that’s a fact. To completely separate fiction from life is not possible, so it’s time to see how fiction can support life and how life can be accurately represented in fiction.
Here’s the truth: As much as I want actual autistic representation in media (which means confirmed autistic characters), the thought of it terrifies me sometimes. There are times I read, watch or play something, and a character shows so many autistic traits that the confirmation of their place on the spectrum seems imminent (yes, albeit rarely, that does happen). And when that is about to happen, I actually have to brace myself, because there are so many ways that can go wrong. Broad generalization of autistic traits is quite common when any piece of fiction tries to explain to the audience what exactly autism is, and it also happens when people on the internet talk about characters possibly being autistic, which neglects that autistic people, too, are people first and foremost. It’s also common for autistic characters to be portrayed in an offensive or incorrect way, or as the punchline of jokes, all of which is harmful. Sometimes, those narratives also become entirely one-sided, focusing on the perspective of people negatively affected by someone else’s neurotype rather than the neuroatypical person themselves.
This makes me feel conflicted because it essentially forces me to mentally choose between no representation and misrepresentation — and in the case of characters with autistic traits (who are not canonically autistic and thus are not representation), the vagueness of their traits would prompt people not on the spectrum to make speculations based on secondhand knowledge and stereotypes, which often includes ignorant, offensive and hurtful comments.
There’s also something interesting that the L essay, too, mentions: When writers create characters who are meant to be odd and quirky, or who are meant to be a joke, those characters are often given traits associated with autism (lack of “common sense” and poor social skills in particular), consciously or not. And none of that does autistic people any good — quite the opposite.
Having said all that, I’m particularly invested in autistic readings of characters who weren’t given dominantly stereotypical traits, at least not to the point of them being associated with autism right away. (This means avoiding the “rude male genius who doesn’t understand social interaction” type most of all.) It’s interesting to pick up autistic vibes from such characters and to put them into context, as less stereotypical characteristics can mean less potential for offensive associations from source material as well as from the audience. I’m aware it’s rather sad to put it that way, as it’s a poor surrogate in a reality where many content creators aren’t willing to take responsibility for heavily autistic-coded or canonically autistic characters just yet, and where true representation is sorely lacking, but what can you do as a consumer?
As far as Free! is concerned, it’s a feel-good series to me (not counting the later half of the second season), but doesn’t mean much to me on its own. Haru, however, is immensely important to me. Haru is neither a botched autistic character (because he’s not canonically autistic…) nor a character who is primarily written to be “weird”. He’s not any weirder or quirkier than the rest of the series’ characters, and he doesn’t serve as the punchline of jokes in a way that is exclusive, much less derogatory with regard to social and interpersonal elements. And because the series is so well-meaning and warm towards all of its characters, because jokes aren’t made at the expense of these characters, it’s an environment where Haru can thrive. And he does so as the protagonist.
Something about Free! that is of tremendous comfort to me is how whole-heartedly Haru is embraced by his friends, even though it takes him time to understand the value in that. The people around him give him the space he needs when they notice that something takes him more time, often make an effort to communicate in a way that is easy for him to understand, take his way of doing things into consideration, and don’t push him to satisfy their own needs. What’s more, they don’t forcibly drag him into conversations and interactions that he isn’t comfortable with, acknowledging his quiet participation instead, and when he speaks, they turn their attention towards him and listen intently. Above all, when Haru has something important to say, when he finally verbalizes feelings, when he reaches out to others to offer his own kind of support, everyone just… stops, and you can see their faces light up: because they know that these things don’t come easily to Haru, and because they appreciate the sincerity and effort behind those acts. It’s not a “good job, you finally did it!” reaction either — it’s “I’m so happy you did”.
Even in other media with “quirky” characters or characters I can read as autistic, the cast surrounding said character usually doesn’t show Free!’s level of understanding and acceptance. When I look at the people surrounding Haru, when I see how Haru feels at ease around them, I wonder what it’d be like — to be able to make yourself understood the way you want to be understood in everyday life, to be able to be your true self without shame, to not be treated by standards that you can’t live up to, and to receive patience and support from people who know what difficulties you struggle with. Looking at Haru makes me feel warm and hopeful.
In fact, the very first figure I bought for myself with my own money back in 2015 is Haru (Petit Chara Land, Marin Style). I knew I just had to buy the figure when I saw it — to place it on my desk as a reminder of all those happy and soothing feelings Haru and Free! have given me, and as a reminder of all the positivity I’ve experienced since finding my own identity.
Beyond wanting to make a point, it is because of all of this that Waterbound was created. I went through the first 19 years of my life missing a vital piece of information to understand who I am, and instead judged myself by the standards of who I wasn't and couldn't be. Waterbound is an exercise in understanding and appreciating things about myself that I’ve struggled with, and sharing them with others. It is thus not just an expression of love for a character whose traits scream familiarity to me, but also an expression of love for myself — something that doesn’t come easily, and something that hasn’t always been the case.