This new animated short I’m happy to say features Pixar’s first-ever nonverbal autistic character.

The short which was just released today (January 10, 2020) is overviewed by Pixar as ‘two kids (Marcus and Renee who is a young autistic girl) at canoe camp who find themselves adrift on a lake, unable to move forward until they find a new way to connect and see the world through each other’s eyes.’ This isn’t the first short that Pixar have featured recently as Float has an autism and special needs metaphor in it that everyone should see.

Spoilers ahead

As they go further down the lake, challenges arise when Marcus takes Renee to a place that causes her to have a meltdown. She paddles trying to get away from the loud noises and ends up throwing her phone into the lake. When the meltdown occurs, Marcus immediately tries to grab her to try to help her. He then realizes though that he should wait for her to come to him. He leaves a leaf near her (which he saw that she enjoyed earlier in the lake) which she grabs after her meltdown subsides. She grabs the leaf after that and communicates with Marcus before they go back on the lake. The final end scene sees Renees phone in a bowl of rice (to help dry the phone out that was recently wet) with a text from Marcus asking if they could go back on the lake again soon

Here are some reasons it resonated with me…

The fact that they featured a girl and someone of color. As we have seen in many TV shows and movies, the protagonist often is a white male (as seen in Parenthood, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Good Doctor, Rain Man & Atypical) who is on the autism spectrum. One of the first films I remember which had a character who was on the spectrum and of color was Walter Hill (played by Dexter Darden) in the film I got to be the autism consultant for in Joyful Noise.

Me and Dexter Darden at the World Premiere of Joyful Noise

Different ways of communicating – Augmented communication has become a big topic in the autism community to help those with nonverbal autism communicate with others. In the short, Renee has a device that has a few pictures on it to indicate things to others she may need to do (such as going to the bathroom). This breaks down a stereotype that those who can’t speak can’t communicate. I was nonverbal and didn’t start talking until I was around 3 and know my parents would have loved to have technology back in the early 90’s like we have to do to help with my communication.

Sensory overload – Sometimes I see sensory overload being overshadowed in our community and I truly wish it wasn’t. While autism is defined as a social and communication disorder one of the other most common characteristics I see is sensory challenges. In the short we get to see this from Renee’s perspective during situations such as the boat rocking back and forth and when her phone gets too loud. Growing up my biggest challenge was sensory related growing up in a big city where there was often a ton of sensory stimuli. I’m glad this was addressed because sometimes it felt like it wasn’t when I was a kid by educators in the 90’s.

I applaud Pixar for producing this short and I can only hope that this will continue the conversation of featuring the entire autism spectrum in more TV and film projects.

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Kerry Magro, a professional speaker, best-selling author & autism entertainment consultant who is also on the autism spectrum started the nonprofit KFM Making a Difference in 2011 to help students with autism receive scholarship aid to pursue a post-secondary education. Help us continue to help students with autism go to college by making a tax-deductible donation to our nonprofit here.

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