Sensitivity & Sameness

Certain aspects of Haru’s everyday life are repeatedly depicted as being constants, whether in his characterization or as part of his routines. Heads-up: Several of the aspects below are purely of comedic value in the series, perhaps even more so than all the other ridiculous things in Free!, but become relevant in the context of autism.

Diet of Mackerels

Living alone, Haru regularly cooks for himself — and is quite the adept cook at that. He’s rarely shown to eat anything other than mackerels though, which at the very least means that mackerels make up a good part of his diet, including the lunch boxes he takes to school. Haru thinks of his own diet as balanced, and gets easily annoyed when confronted about it. Much to his friends’ horror, Haru also doesn’t shy away from combining mackerel with things they don’t usually go well with.

His love for mackerels doesn’t just show in his self-prepared meals though: When the group holds a training camp on an island in 1.05, Haru brings an entire box of mackerels with him, and later on in 1.06, he is pleased when they find canned mackerels at an abandoned rest house while seeking shelter from the storm. Even when visiting other places (in the case of tournament locations such as in 1.11), Haru would predictably order dishes that include mackerel.

Wardrobe of Jammers

Like other male competitive swimmers, Haru’s swimwear of choice is the jammer, a form-fitting swimsuit chosen for the speed advantage it provides due to the reduction of water resistance. Like mackerels, Haru’s jammers are a running gag in the series in two regards: Firstly, Haru wears them everywhere, including in the bathtub, under the apron while cooking after getting out of the bath, and as underwear under his regular clothes, the last of which ensures that he can strip and jump into the water anytime when the opportunity comes up.

Secondly, all the jammers Haru owns are nearly identical in appearance, and he keeps buying that same look whenever he goes shopping for new swim gear. Though nobody can tell the difference between the different pairs, Haru insists that each of them fits him differently.

Daily Routines

As Free! takes place while the characters are attending high school, scenes revolving around their school life give the series a certain structure as well as a setting wherein they interact. Haru’s morning routine in that regard entails taking a cold bath during colder seasons to compensate for being unable to swim, frying mackerel for breakfast and walking to school with Makoto.

Makoto is a constant presence in Haru’s life, and with them living next to each other, one usually waits for the other when they have plans together. On school days, it’s Makoto who always waits for Haru: Not only does he come over to pull Haru out of the bathtub, he also makes sure Haru doesn’t leave the house too late for school. (Perhaps a needless concern: While Haru usually takes his time and goes at his own pace, he isn’t regularly characterized as unpunctual.) After school and club activities, Haru and Makoto usually walk home together.

In the evenings, Haru tends to take warm baths while digesting the events of the past day. It would seem that there are days on which Haru takes up to two or three baths depending on how he’s feeling (see water as comfort).

Autism: Sensory Sensitivity and Sameness

Sensory sensitivity and the preference for sameness are major parts of autism and autistic identity, as they have significant impact on the everyday life of those on the spectrum. While separate aspects of autism, the two do overlap — including in the way both of them seem to be neglected in some representations of autism and discussions of non-autistic people regarding possibly autistic characters.

Autistic people process sensory information differently: Input isn’t filtered the same way as in the case of non-autistic people, whose brains are capable of telling what sensory information is important, and thus what needs to be focused on and what can be tuned out. As a result, autistic people may either receive too much information and be hypersensitive (over-sensitive), or receive too little information and be hyposensitive (under-sensitive) with regard to certain input. Either way, the autistic brain struggles to interpret this input so as to determine the appropriate response. This can apply to any of the sensory modalities with varying intensity, including combinations of them: vision, sound, smell, taste, touch, balance/movement and body awareness/positioning.

When hyper- or hyposensitivity reaches a level where it heavily interferes with everyday life, it falls under sensory processing disorder, also known as sensory integration dysfunction. This is the case for the majority of autistic people, though the reverse doesn’t apply: People with sensory processing disorder aren’t necessarily autistic.

Being hypersensitive can manifest itself as getting distracted, feeling severe discomfort or even experiencing pain in response to certain sensory stimulation. Examples across the different senses include disliking bright lights, easily getting startled by sounds, being overwhelmed by noise, being light sleepers, being picky eaters (with regard to texture, smell and/or taste), a dislike to being touched, the refusal to wear hair a certain way, low tolerance for certain clothes, having difficulty changing directions, having trouble manipulating small objects due to poor fine motor skills, and so on. Being exposed to such input, especially over a prolonged period, can lead to sensory overload: The amount of information received becomes overwhelming, which causes stress, pain, and may end with a meltdown or shutdown.

Being hyposensitive means being insensitive to and having a much higher threshold for certain sensory input, which can make the person appear to be unreactive. Examples include being unable to make out objects due to not seeing their features, insufficient depth perception, not acknowledging some sounds, failing to smell one’s own body odour, not being able to feel light touches, pain and temperatures to a certain degree, being unaware of hunger, having a weak grasp, frequently bumping into objects and people, and so on. Hyposensitivity may lead to craving such input, feeling restless without it, being attracted to extreme sensory stimulations such as noise and strong odours, or getting easily distracted by certain shapes, colours and motions. This can be damaging especially in the case of looking directly into bright lights, indifference to pain, or self-harm, just to name a few examples.

Stimming, short for self-stimulatory behaviour, is prevalent among autistic people particularly as an answer to hyper- or hyposensitivity (but occurs for other reasons too). Such behaviour consists of repetitive movements and other actions, for example hand-flapping, flicking light switches on and off, making vocal sounds, scratching, rocking back and forth, chewing, licking or sniffing at other people or objects. Autistic people may stim because some of their senses are under-stimulated due to hyposensitivity, or to block out sensory input from the environment by focusing on a single thing in the case of hypersensitivity, which calms their anxiety. Stimming can also be a way of communicating, however, for example as a way to express excitement or anxiousness. As mentioned above, some self-stimulatory behaviour can be harmful, but it warrants mentioning that stimming in general is usually considered socially inappropriate — even in positive context, and even as it helps the person calm down or focus. That’s… baffling, to say the least, considering how many non-autistic people regularly engage in stimming — think of twirling hair, tapping, pacing, rocking legs, biting nails — and how intrusive those movements can be as well.

Two videos that, in my opinion, portray hypersensitivity and the ensuing sensory overload well are this one by the UK’s National Autistic Society and this one from the Interacting with Autism Project, although they mainly focus on vision and sound. Incidentally, that second link also comes with an overview of examples similar to the ones above.

While seeking out stimulation can occur for any of the reasons above, avoidance is a common response specifically to hypersensitivity. Engaging in repetitive behaviour by following routines and sets of rules allows hypersensitive autistic people to introduce some consistency and order into the chaos of the daily life that is dictated by all the different sensory input. Being adverse to certain textures can be dealt with by, for example, always wearing and eating the same things; sensory overload triggered by noise isn’t just met by covering one’s ears, but also by avoiding noisy routes and locations and always choosing a specific time to cross or be at a specific place.

Autism and rigidity go hand in hand (something already briefly mentioned under ”Special Interest”), as adherence to sameness is a way to cope — which shows just how much hypersensitivity can affect one’s behaviour and daily structure. This adherence to sameness, however, exists independently of sensory processing as well: Autistic people generally don’t like change and may have immense difficulty transitioning, to the extent of experiencing severe distress and anxiety in reaction to slight changes in their environment or when things don’t go as planned or anticipated. They can also be adamant about sticking to rules and expecting the same of others, and doing things the way they’ve been taught. This rigidity and the distress felt are extreme, as they apply even in cases where deviance from such routines and rules has no remarkable consequences: wanting to buy a particular brand of sweets but seeing it sold out, trains not arriving at the usual platforms, the usual seat in a classroom not being available, a dish missing a minor ingredient, and so on. Sticking to the same routines means being at least vaguely familiar and thus prepared for anything that comes up, and predictability reduces anxiety.

I also assume that autistic people are more comfortable with sameness because many things that come naturally to others are actually learned behaviour and conscious acts for autistic people, especially as far as social interaction is concerned. Not knowing what “script” or “behaviour patterns” and rituals to stick to when dealing with someone new or when in a new environment can be very stressful.

Autistic Haru

Having said all that, there are evidently various repetitive or rigid elements in Haru’s everyday life. In the context of autism, the way he distinguishes between the almost identical-looking jammers would be interpreted as sensitivity to texture: the ability to perceive — in this case feel — input on a level not acknowledged by less sensitive people. Sticking to that same model and not trying out any other colours, brands or designs would be an expression of the preference for sameness, as would wearing those jammers all the time and everywhere. That last point could also be easily linked to liking the feeling of a certain texture and considering that sensory input as soothing, thus preferring these jammers to other pieces of clothing — just look at Haru’s expression when he talks about the minuscule differences in the sensory input.

The same pretty much applies to his fondness of mackerels: From the viewpoint of a non-autistic person, the instances where Haru’s mackerels come up would surely imply more than just them being his favourite food. Haru specifically brings a box full of them with him on a trip, and specifically orders them at the restaurant. For autistic people who are picky eaters due to sensitivity to taste, touch or smell, having access to familiar food can be very important, lest they forego eating altogether due to not being willing to try out something new or not being able to compromise. Note also that Haru repeatedly gets annoyed when other characters scrutinize his eating habits: The rigidity of the autistic lifestyle is not rarely perceived as weird and boring, and met with lack of understanding — or worse, with forceful attempts to get the autistic person to branch out and to conform to “expectations”. On the other hand, Haru doesn’t seem all that receptive to the taste of pineapples…

Lastly, being in the water is undoubtedly the sensation that Haru loves the most, something that has already been sufficiently addressed under ”Special Interest”. With regard to sensory overload, it deserves mentioning that Haru’s retreat to the water especially in stressful situations is a kind of stimming. Focusing on the way the water feels allows Haru to collect himself while blocking out chaotic intrusive thoughts, which may help him figure out what exactly he needs to focus on. It’s actually very similar to how autistic people would usually seek out pressure (for example by using weighted blankets) to calm down. And what else is swimming if not a series of repetitive movements?

Haru’s relation to physical touch is covered under Nonverbal Communication, the importance of sameness and the struggle with transitions is addressed under S2: Change, and possible echolalia is explored under Speech. Makoto’s tremendous importance in Haru’s life, especially due to the structure, stability, familiarity and an own set of rituals that his presence provides, is so significant to Haru and the series as a whole that it warrants its own spot under Makoto Tachibana.