“Special Interest”

Free! opens with a monologue from Haru’s days at the swim club during elementary school:

Haru, 1.01 The water is alive. Once you dive in, it will immediately bare its fangs and attack. But there’s nothing to fear. Don’t resist the water. Thrust your fingers into the surface and carve an opening. Then you slide your body through that opening. Moving your arms, your head, your chest… […]

That’s right, I don’t care about swimming faster times. All I want is to feel the water. With my skin, my eyes, my soul… To never doubt what it makes me feel. Believe in myself. Don’t resist the water. Welcome it. We accept one another.

The first part of this monologue is something he repeats several times over the series, sometimes comically at that, and though the scene is followed by Haru’s dismissive words in the present (”There was some funky stuff going through my head back then.”), the sentiment in the second part is no less true: If there’s something that defines Haru, it’s his strong affinity with water and his fixation on swimming.

Water as Attraction

Water is shown to be constantly on Haru’s mind, especially with the story starting in spring, when temperatures are still somewhat chilly and outdoor pools as well as the sea aren’t options for a quick swim just yet. Haru has been dearly missing swimming during the cold seasons, and though he’s usually not as keen on trying out new things, becoming involved with new people and doing anything that he thinks of as troublesome, he is willing to go through all of it if it means getting the chance to jump into the pool once again. (Knowing his friend all too well, Makoto specifically brings up the opportunity to swim on a few occasions to coax Haru into going along with whatever the group is up to next.)

For someone who usually isn’t as expressive, water and the prospect of swimming are something capable of bringing out different expressions in Haru without fail.

In the first few episodes of the series in particular, Haru’s obsession with water is played up for comedic effect: Upon seeing any container of water large enough for him to fit in, Haru would spontaneously strip and, if not held back by his friends in particularly inappropriate situations, plunge into the water.

Water as Aptitude

While Haru’s strong connection to the water isn’t something everyone understands, just about anyone would be captivated by the sight of his swimming — something that has held true since early childhood. All of Free!’s major characters feel something very special when seeing Haru swim, his speed and effortless elegance eliciting reactions ranging from admiration, joy, enthusiasm and pride to envy, frustration and bitterness.

Unlike other characters who swim with a purpose (notably with their sights set on becoming professional swimmers), Haru claims that he doesn’t swim for any particular reason, and, conversely, also doesn’t need a reason to swim. Rather than obsessing over improving his times or winning, all he wishes is to be in the water and to swim freely.

Rei, 2.07 I guess it’s really true that, no matter what anyone says, I really love the way you swim, Haruka-senpai. It has nothing to do with theory or calculations. It just makes me feel something very powerful. It made me want to be able to swim that way, too — freely.

Water as Freedom

Haru’s catch phrase is ”I only swim free.” — the standard reply he gives anytime he is challenged or asked to take part in a tournament. “Free” refers to freestyle swimming, a category in swimming competitions that largely leaves it to the swimmer to choose their swimming stroke (rather than restricting them to either butterfly, backstroke or breaststroke). Most competitors would go for the front crawl due to it generally being the fastest stroke, and so does Haru. Haru’s fixation on freestyle swimming, however, goes beyond just that: To him, water signifies freedom itself, and only when he’s in the water does he truly feel free. As someone who strongly dislikes being tied down by anything, his insistence on freestyle swimming reflects his desire to do as he wishes, without being held back by regulations.

Water as Comfort

Haru feels most natural when in water; its presence and sensation put him at ease while giving him with the space to be himself. Whenever Haru’s mind is in a state of turmoil, he retreats to the water — usually the bathtub or a swimming pool — to collect his thoughts and sort out his feelings undisturbed. In that regard, he treats the water almost as a friend — understandably so, as he is the kind of person who tends to internalize his problems and has difficulty voicing his feelings. Haru also keeps a little dolphin figure in the bathroom that can occasionally be seen floating in the bathtub.

Haru, 1.09 I was swimming because I didn’t know what to do. I figured I should ask the water about matters involving water.

Water as Connection

Haru’s relationships and general interactions with others as well as his interest in his surroundings are largely determined by their own connection to the water and swimming: If people or plans don’t involve either of the two, chances are that Haru won’t bother (unless it’s on behalf of his friends).

Though mainly humorous in nature, two scenes during 1.03 and 1.04 demonstrate very well how strongly Haru feels about this: After failing to persuade the track club member Rei to switch over to the swim club, a desperate Nagisa lets it slip in front of Haru that Rei doesn’t seem to like the water. In response, Haru’s usually relaxed expression turns into one of annoyance, and he says quite firmly: “We don’t need anyone like that. Don’t let him in the water.” In the follow-up episode, after Rei has joined them, the group theorizes about Rei’s difficulties with learning how to swim. Haru’s contribution to the discussion is “The water doesn’t like him.” — which either shows that he remembers Rei’s initial slight or that he genuinely thinks of the water as something capable of rejecting others, as a person would.

Aside from not being a person of many words, swimming is Haru’s way to connect with others, especially emotionally, even if it takes him a good part of the series to truly understand that. All major characters connect to Haru through swimming, all in a slightly different way (as friends, admirers and rivals), and the development of their bonds through swimming is in fact the focus of the series.

Autism: “Special Interest” and “Gift”

Autistic people typically have very passionate and intensely pursued interests, usually on a level (depth) and to a degree (devotion) that may come as a surprise to others. Their focus on these interests may be exclusive, meaning that things outside of these interests would fail to catch their attention. It is that same dedication that often allows them to easily retain a wealth of detailed information regarding the respective subjects, to understand them as deeply as specialists in the field, and to talk about them at length. Info-dumping, the act of going on and on about said interests, and especially without being able to tell when the other person isn’t interested, is something that may occur until the autistic person has learned to read the cues.

In the context of autism, “special interest” is the term used to refer to this — and I can’t stand the term (though others might be comfortable using it when talking about themselves). While the interests of autistic people stand out either in intensity or focus (i.e. obscure or narrow subjects), to me, they are — or ought to be — essentially the same as what other people call “hobbies”, “passions” or, well, “interests”. “Special interest”, reserved for autistic people, on the other hand, seems to stress the so-called abnormality of either the subject itself or the devotion to it. The interests themselves are regarded as highly restricted, subsequently referred to as fixations or obsessions, and may even be deemed socially undesirable as a result.

I assume that part of this is due to the public’s focus on children as far as autism is concerned. Lining up toy blocks or cars, watching certain repetitive motions or being absorbed by specific shapes for hours on end are frequently cited examples at that age, which may be negatively perceived by parents if they try to get the child’s attention or try to teach it something new. Or it might be things like memorizing tables of data or strings of numbers pertaining to a subject, which is regarded as useless even if it brings the autistic person joy. Parents worry about these “atypical” interests and are afraid that the child is closing itself off to the world and other people. By trying to prohibit and halt the pursuit of those interests, they fail to understand the emotional connection and attachment to the subject, and miss out on opportunities to connect to the child in its own way.

Furthermore, in popular depictions and reports of autism in media, these interests are usually heavily linked to numbers: maths and science, and portrayals of male geniuses in their fields who know a great deal about specific subjects, but not much about anything else. While many autistic people do indeed pursue these interests by absorbing large amounts of information, there are three things wrong with that picture: Firstly, not all autistic people are geniuses or (academically) “intelligent”, much less savants. Secondly, numbers and maths aren’t the only “autistic interests” there are, and autistic people aren’t necessarily good at maths. Thirdly, autism isn’t a typically male thing. (This last point won’t be further pursued on this shrine, but is related to the typical portrayal of autism.)

From my point of view, what the singling out of autistic people’s interests, the perception of such interests in the eye of the public and the stereotypical portrayal of autistic people in media come down to is this: If a deeply pursued encompassing interest is not “useful”, “productive” or monetarily “profitable”, it’s considered abnormal. All the while, professionals who show extreme passion and dedication to a subject and autistic people who excel at what they do when they manage to find a profession connected to their interest are praised and admired. And then there are savants, which is often what people think of when they hear autism, as a large part of savants are autistic — even though very few autistic people are savants.

Along with other preconceptions regarding the spectrum, there’s a clear narrative of autism and autistic people being undesirable unless they manage to redeem themselves by being “useful” and doing something “worthwhile”, rather than treating them with the respect and value inherent to any human being. This isn’t just wrong, but also adds pressure on autistic people, along with the misplaced responsibility of having to prove their own worth by demanding that their interests be and be made into something monetarily worthwhile, lest it be a waste of time — a demand that isn’t made of non-autistic people and their passions.

Autistic Haru

Haru’s intense focus and his single-mindedness regarding swimming, his attachment to water, an inanimate thing, the soothing effect being in the water has on him, the rigidity with which his interests affect what kind of activities and people he chooses to get involved with: All these things are very typical of autistic people and their interests. Haru is very much an all-or-nothing person, and so are autistic people: To them, pursuing their interests isn’t just a pastime, and to Haru, swimming isn’t just a sport or a competition — it’s joy, love and the feeling of being home.

In what other ways water and swimming play a role in Haru’s life from the viewpoint of autism is further pursued under Sensitivity & Sameness (routines and texture), Speech (the incorporation of thoughts and vocabulary specific to the interest into communication), Connecting and S1: Reconnecting (connecting with others through swimming), and S2: Change (aforementioned pressure and the link between passion and usefulness).