Hello everybody, this is George Harvey (aka The Autistic Blogger). Welcome to another instalment of Are They Autistic?: the series where I look at characters from various forms of media and analyse whether I think they’re on the spectrum or not.
Today I decided to try something a little bit different. Instead of a character from a book or TV series, I’ll be analysing one from a short film. Specifically: Renee from Disney Pixar’s Loop (2020). Also, my reasons for choosing her are somewhat different too. Usually, when selecting characters for this series, I prefer those who haven’t been confirmed to be Autistic. The reason is it gives me more leeway to observe their behaviours and make assessments of my own. In Renee’s case, she is confirmed to have Autism. But it’s not the kind I usually analyse. Let me explain.
What’s important to remember about Autism is that it’s not one condition but several neurological ones acting together. Also, these combinations affect different people to varying degrees. Hence why there’s a spectrum. True, there are minor cases where a person only has repetitive behaviours or learning difficulties. Or milder cases (like mine) where it’s hard to process information and socialise. But then there are higher forms. In these cases, people struggle to develop basic motor skills where even speech is difficult. I may not have this form myself. But I have witnessed firsthand how severe it can be when visiting special needs schools. It gave me a newfound appreciation for the personal carers who’re committed to helping such people.
Going back to Renee, she’s advertised as a non-verbal Autistic character. I was keen to see how well-handled her condition would be in this short. After all, it’s one thing to claim a character is highly Autistic; it’s another to portray them as such – there have been misinterpretations before. That being said, I was confident in the studio behind this story. Why? Because it’s Pixar. Yes, the company responsible for innovating mainstream computer animation has also produced multiple short films over the years. Whether it’s their classics like Luxo Jr. (1986), award-winners like Bao (2018), or visual masterpieces like Piper (2016), they always make sure to research the subject thoroughly before putting pen to paper. With this in mind, I knew they wouldn’t take a topic like Autism lightly. So let’s take a look.
As the short begins, we’re immediately introduced to Renee. She’s sitting in a canoe at a campground, listening to a ringtone on her phone. Other kids have already gone paddling ahead, but Renee is too fixated on playing the sound over and over again.
Within the first 30 seconds, the animation establishes a common Autistic trait. When you’re on the spectrum, it’s easy to focus on just one thing rather than everything around you – it’s less stressful that way. As an audience, we can see the other kids paddling away in the distance. But when looking through Renee’s eyes, they’re almost out of focus. All that’s clear to her is the phone and the sound it makes. There are other indications of her condition, as well. She doesn’t look at people when they approach her; she retracts if they get too close and makes loud groans to show her displeasure. Even her facial expressions are realistic, with her glassy eyes and limp smile. Director Erica Milsom knew she had to get Renee’s character across to the audience quickly. And with everything that’s presented visually, it’s clear Renee is Autistic without anyone needing to say it.
However, the short isn’t really about discovering Renee’s condition. Instead, it wants to teach viewers about its effects and how best to interact with someone who has it. To do this, they pair Renee with someone who’s her opposite.
Back on the riverbank, a boy named Marcus arrives. He’s running late and eager to catch up. But the camp counsellor asks him to go with Renee today. He’s somewhat reluctant at first because of her reputation, but the counsellor assures him she likes canoeing too. He also gives Renee some reassurance before pushing them off.
Two things are highlighted in this scene for me. First off, Marcus probably doesn’t know about Renee’s Autism. The way he describes her as “that girl who doesn’t talk” is evidence of this. As such, the audience identifies with him as someone who’s learning about the condition for the first time – maybe like they are. The other point is with the camp councillor. He’s actively trying to encourage better interactions among his campers. It’s mentioned, for example, that he usually goes with Renee in the canoe – implying the other kids keep their distance. However, he knows that’s not the way forward. Although he’s aware putting her with someone else will make her uneasy – because making the slightest change to an Autistic person’s routine can do that – he wants to ease her out of her comfort zone. That way, she’ll be more willing to try new experiences. He also wants Marcus to get along with different kinds of people. It’s a learning experience for both kids.
Out on the lake, things are challenging for Marcus and Renee. At first, Marcus tries speaking to her like any other teenager. But he quickly realises that’s not going to work. She’s too focused on something ahead, keeps listening to her ringtone and doesn’t take notice of him. But it’s not because she’s ignoring him; it’s how her mind processes what’s around her.
As I alluded to before, there are times when we’re shown Renee’s point of view directly through her eyes. Whenever that happens, almost everything we see becomes light and blurry. It emphasises how Renee struggles to focus on anything that isn’t at the centre of her attention. She prefers to concentrate on things she’s familiar with and for everything else to be quiet.
That being said, there are also moments when she’s overly sensitive to her surroundings. For example, as Marcus tries speaking again, his voice sounds like a distant echo to Renee. She’s still fixated on something else, so his words aren’t processed very well. Meanwhile, sounds such as Marcus knocking his paddle or sniffing are magnified in volume. To almost any other person, these sounds would barely register. But for Renee, they’re so sudden and unexpected that it shocks her attention to them. It’s usually louder and scarier noises that set her off.
I can think of one other time I’ve seen something that displays an Autistic person’s perspective so efficiently. Several years ago, I attended an Autism Awareness convention in London. While there, a tech company showed me a video program they’d made on a virtual reality headset. Watching the video, you’re looking through the eyes of a boy who’s at a regular shopping centre with his mum. The mother tells you to wait while she does something at a counter. There’s nothing unusual about that. But then things start to happen around you. Footsteps, ringing mobiles, people talking; all these everyday sounds are made much louder in the video, and you can even see the vibrations emanating off them. Eventually, you’re being overwhelmed by so many sounds you can’t help looking around at where they’re all coming from. By this point, the mother has returned and is trying to ask you what’s wrong. But you barely notice her because you’re still trying to locate all the sounds. Soon it becomes too much to bear, and the footage blacks out. For anyone who’s not highly Autistic, this video shows exactly what kind of stress those people experience almost every day.
Now, to be clear, although Renee finds it hard to process what people say, that doesn’t mean she can’t understand them at all. She does, for example, register when Marcus asks her what she wants to do. It seems she wants to tell him something but can’t express it in words. So instead, she looks around, groaning and breathing heavily, as if trying to find some other way of letting him know.
Assuming Renee can’t think of anything, Marcus decides they’ll do a quick paddle around and then get her back to camp. She seems fine with what he says at first. But then he starts talking too fast and spinning the canoe in a circle. The movement freaks her out, and she begins physically rocking the boat from side to side – almost tipping them over. Marcus understands and stops to try and calm Renee down. He suggests taking her back to camp. But that only sets her off rocking the canoe again. It’s not what she wants.
As the scene progresses, we can see Marcus is getting more frustrated. It’s understandable why. He has no idea how Renee will react to anything he says or does, and it might end up being dangerous. Even so, he manages to stay calm and asks her what she wants again. Once more, his voice sounds like an echo to Renee. She doesn’t even look at him when he speaks because she’s anticipating another noise to happen somewhere. She does, however, pick up on something he says: if she wants to do something specific, she’s got to help him out.
That’s when Renee gets an idea. She shows Marcus a ‘poop’ emoji on her phone. He’s confused at first, but then he notices some portable outhouses on a nearby riverbank. Renee somewhat gestures at them too, and he realises that’s where she wants to head. Smiling, he begins slowly paddling over.
I want to say, at this point, how much I admire the short for highlighting technology as a means of communication; many video programs and applications are being made nowadays to help Autistic people develop life skills. Going back to the time I visited a special needs school, there was a boy there who was just as non-verbal as Renee. To help him communicate, the care workers gave him an iPad with an application that spoke simple sentences. All he had to do was remember the right combination of buttons they’d taught him, and he could let them know how he was feeling or what he wanted at any given time. It was a simple repetitive action that helped make all the difference.
Repetitiveness is also shown in Renee. As she and Marcus approach the riverbank, they pass by some water reeds. Renee reaches out because she likes how they feel on her skin. It’s then Marcus realises she never wanted to use the restrooms at all. Renee only wanted to go through the reeds and used the emoji to clue him in on the direction. After passing through them several times, Renee starts listening to her ringtone over and over again. Seeing how much she enjoys it, Marcus has an idea.
It’s clear by now the ringtone is a source of comfort for Renee. Unlike many other sounds, it’s one she has control over and likes hearing. It’s similar to me in a way. When working on long articles like this one, I sometimes have to stop for a few minutes and watch short videos online. It gives me a brief moment of entertainment, so I’m not overwhelmed by the workload and can reset my focus. Other people listen to music or play games for similar results. Everyone needs something they’re familiar with to guide them along.
Marcus paddles the canoe inside a large sewer pipe. The confined space echoes the sound of Renee’s ringtone, which seems to please her. Marcus admits he likes it in there, too: “[it’s] a good place to be when there’s too much other stuff happening out there.”
So perhaps Marcus does understand Renee a little. This dialogue implies he knows what it’s like to be overwhelmed by problems in the outside world. He thinks it might be an idea if they stay there a while, so Renee doesn’t have to deal with sensory overload.
Suddenly there’s a problem. Renee hears the sound of a speedboat approaching outside. Terrified of the monstrous noise being amplified within the pipe, she frantically paddles for the exit. Marcus doesn’t seem to understand and tries fighting against it. He steers them clear of the oncoming boat, but the force of his paddling knocks them both ashore with the canoe. He demands to know why Renee did that. But Renee has gone into a complete meltdown. She cries out in fear and rage, refuses to let Marcus touch her, and even throws her phone in the water by accident. She then hides under the canoe, still crying and trying to block out everything around her.
I respect the short for not shying away from this drama; sometimes, no matter how cautious you are, an Autistic person will have emotional breakdowns. And they will be challenging to deal with because you don’t know how that person will act in their state. However, when they do occur, it’s essential to stay calm and work out the cause of stress so you can put them at ease.
Marcus immediately realises his mistake. But rather than do anything that might worsen the situation, he leaves Renee to calm down. A long time passes, and she still hasn’t come out. So he sits down to talk to her. He admits that she’s an “intense” person to deal with at times. But he “messed up” by shouting at her. He doesn’t always know what to do – not like their councillor – but he understands he needs to be patient.
I love how Marcus is honest in this scene; of course, he wouldn’t know what to do in this situation; it’s a first-time experience for him. And someone like Renee would intimidate him at first; he isn’t familiar with how her condition makes her behave. But the experience is meant to be a realistic one for the audience. It’s something they can learn from along with Marcus.
Eventually, Renee comes out and plays with the water reed that Marcus left her. Marcus copies the sound of her ringtone, and she repeats it back to him. It’s then that she finally looks at him and gives him a half-smile. With everything calm now, and the sun beginning to set, they both get back in the canoe and paddle towards camp. In a post-credits scene, it’s revealed they’ve stayed in contact and occasionally go canoeing together still.
And that’s Disney Pixar’s Loop. In summary, it does an excellent job of representing non-verbal Autistic people. Not to mention what first interactions with them could be like for others. The plot may not have much of a set-up, and the ending is a little ambiguous. But Renee’s condition is always at the forefront of the story. Whether it’s her facial expressions, her unique point of view or her emotional outbursts, the animators did everything they could to make sure Renee was portrayed accurately – which isn’t surprising considering they consulted the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). Even if I went into this not knowing about Renee’s condition, it would still be clear to me that she’s on the spectrum.
So yes, it goes without saying that I believe Renee is highly Autistic. However, I also can’t stress how appealing this 8-minute short is. My descriptions don’t even begin to do it justice. So, if you have Disney+ and ever get a spare moment, definitely watch it for yourselves. You might find it teaches empathy in ways you never could’ve imagined.
That’s all I have to say. If you have any questions, please leave me a comment below. And, until next time, stay tuned.
PS. I am still recovering from having Covid 19, but I think I’m past the worst of it. Also, I’d like to give a special thank you to Wendy Jones. She commented on my last post and asked if I’d like my blog to be included on her list of resources, which she provides to parents to help share Autism with their children. I’m always happy to share my work with others.
Image courtesy of: https://thewaltdisneycompany.com/pixar-sparkshort-loop-promotes-autism-acceptance-celebrates-difference-and-helps-inspire-change/