Back in 2015 when I first had vague ideas to make this shrine, Waterbound was meant to be a working title, chosen for its pretty looks and sound and the connection between Haru and water first and foremost. About a year later, with actual plans to make the shrine happen, I realized the name had grown on me, and when I was thinking about what kind of layout to make that would reflect my shrine’s focus, I understood it couldn’t be any name other than this.
Autism and Water Imagery
Water is something I had already associated with autism for quite some time. Back in 2013, I wrote this:
Excerpt I was a fish in a bowl, constantly immersed in my own world within familiar territory — safe, sheltered, but the balance was so vulnerable; any contact with the outside world would leave a mark on mine, force me to readjust. Readjusting took time and energy, and the shaking bowl and vibrating water would always leave me exhausted even if I did manage to find back to my initial state.
Autism makes me feel like being submerged, with water absorbing and processing input differently than air. What you see and hear from below the water’s surface isn’t the same; information reaches you with far less clarity. But information is also enhanced in ways that you wouldn’t have thought of outside of the water: Any movement and sound from the outside and the above create ripples in the water — a reaction visible to the eye.
As an autistic person, information may reach me differently, and I may take longer to process it. Often, I have to consciously go through all the steps to grasp or to respond to something, whereas other people would be able to do so intuitively: interpreting social cues or mimicking certain movements, for example. The hypersensitivity that comes with being autistic makes input that is considered acceptable and “normal” to others less acceptable or even painful to me; as with ripples in the water, the impact of input is far stronger to some autistic people. In my case, I’m very sensitive to sound, and every time I go out (especially to the city), it feels like all the water within my bowl being thoroughly shaken. Sure, it eventually calms down when I come back home, but my brain would still feel like having been severely disturbed, and it’d take considerable time for me to actually recover and collect myself.
More than just a filter, water is also an environment. When you’re in the right environment, you’re in your element: Your whole being is accustomed to it; you know what you are like when you’re in it, the things you are capable of. Remove a person from the environment where they can thrive and they’re out of their element: a fish out of water.
When I’m in my element, I can do so many more things that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to do, or would only manage doing with limited capacity, which is not a true representation of my abilities. To me, that’s especially as far as communication is concerned: I can’t communicate anywhere as well in speaking as I do in writing. There’s a lot of awkwardness in physical and oral interaction that drains me; coupled with my difficulty to string together sentences particularly when talking about something dear or important to me, the output completely strips what I mean to convey of its significance, and the phrasing of its elegance. It distorts my actual message as well as my own person, to the point of me preferring not to talk about these matters in oral conversation at all.
Many things about autism cause massive difficulties in everyday life because the structures and social expectations haven’t been carved with autistic people in mind, making these things handicaps. If autistic people received proper accommodation, however, the same things that are considered handicaps can become strengths, and other traits turn into an advantage.
Being autistic also feels as though there’s a layer of glass between me and the world around me — the glass bowl, thin and barely noticeable, but solid and existent nevertheless. It can be very difficult to connect with others, unless people are willing to meet me half-way or cross over to the domain I’m familiar with… As it stands, many people won’t ever know or meet the real me, and instead only see me through the glass, through the water from the other side of the bowl.
I think a lot of the things I’ve said above apply to Haru as well, whether or not you agree with the autistic reading of the character. Fact is, Haru is in his element when he’s in the water: inspired, confident, elegant, admirable, nigh invincible. People other than his friends most likely look at him differently when they see him swim, compared to his usual taciturn and laid-back demeanour.
There’s actually a very cute scene in 2.03 where Iwatobi’s swim club takes part in a track and field relay against the other school clubs in order to attract new club members. Haru’s movements are pointed out to be very elegant, but extremely slow: a good analogy for certain strengths not proving to be effective when applied to a very different field, and someone being out of their element.
In Free! Eternal Summer’s ending clip, FUTURE FISH, the characters are depicted as part of an alternate universe wherein Haru is an elusive mermaid. There’s even art and extra material, including bonus stories, entirely devoted to this AU. I’ve loved Haru as a mermaid from the moment I saw the ending clip, and when I saw the bonus art, I really wanted to feature it somewhere. When I finally reestablished my personal link between autism and water, I knew I’d be combining “Waterbound” with the mermaid depiction of Haru: an elegant interpretation that encapsulates all my associations above.
- confined or detained by water, especially floodwater / prevented by a flood from proceeding
- consolidated or held together by water
And that’s it with autism, isn’t it? Because many autistic traits clash with social expectations and structures, many of those traits work against you in everyday life — you’re “prevented from proceeding”. The mention of “floodwater” in particular makes me think of overwhelming sensory input, a wealth of information that autistic people take longer to process. Other autistic traits limit you to the extent of it feeling like confinement: Unless you conform to standards that weren’t made with your particular difficulties in mind, you’re barred from participating.
However, as already mentioned, I refuse to see autism as something inherently negative: To be “bound” to something may be a dependence and a limit, but it also signifies a special connection that others may not have. When I express that Haru is waterbound, I don’t just mean that he only excels in water — I also mean that he connects with others through water, far more intensely than any other character. That connection doesn’t go unnoticed either, as various characters explicitly state that they feel something very special when watching Haru swim, actually swimming with him and racing him.
Free! is less about actual swimming and sports as it is about friendship and the sense of connection, along with rediscovering what it means to connect. In this context, and in the context of autism, I want waterbound to express being bound to each other through water, through common intensely pursued interests, through a language, a filter and an environment in which you can make yourself understood.
Hence, when Waterbound opens with “don’t resist the water”, a phrase Haru repeats over and over, what I truly mean to express is: Don’t resist who you truly are.