A Netflix hit is a missed opportunity for autism


After the torment of indebted souls in “Squid Game,” South Korea has fallen in love with a feel-good courtroom drama featuring an unusual lead: a young lawyer with autism. “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” has been the most popular non-English series on Netflix for weeks this summer, and the season finale, which aired last month, broke viewing records for broadcaster ENA.

Too bad this runaway hit misses out on an opportunity to educate and entertain.

A main character with a disability is a welcome change of pace for the South Korean entertainment industry, a behemoth best known for its flawless actors and polished pop bands. Here, as in much of the world, stigma exists and autism is often misunderstood. The problem is that while representation is important, stereotyped representations like this one do not seek to show people with disabilities as they really are. Rather, they show themselves as the public wants them to be. In this case, clumsy but pretty, academically high-performing, achieving one professional triumph after another.

Indeed, the wise man syndrome, responsible for the legal brilliance with which main character Woo Young-woo constantly amazes his colleagues, is rare. Statistics vary, but perhaps 1 in 10 people with autism show some clever abilities, and not many with the degree of virtuosity shown here. The reality for the vast majority of people with autism couldn’t be further from Woo. He is more mundane, more complicated, and much more challenging. Especially since, for many, the workplace remains out of reach entirely. Perhaps those fights would not have been for comfort television.

The portrayal of people with autism as freakish geniuses dates back to the 1988 movie “Rain Man” and Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt, a wise man who can memorize the phone book but is overwhelmed by the world. The performance earned Hoffman an Oscar and brought autism to the fore. Unfortunately, he also created enduring stereotypes that impact how society views people with autism, their abilities and limitations. More modern versions of the same idea, such as “The Good Doctor” series about a medical prodigy with autism (existing in the US and Korean versions), continue to fuel misconceptions about a condition now thought to be affects 1 in 44 US children age 8.

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There have been more successful efforts to address fictional characters with autism that are not just plot devices, and perhaps Detective Saga Noren in the Nordic film noir series “The Bridge” (even if she is never identified as having autism ) comes close to something believable. Documentaries, like “The Reason I Jump” or “Billy the Kid,” anchored in real life, predictably work best when it comes to giving audiences an accurate snapshot.

But tropes are hard to shake, and as a parent of a child with autism, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked what his “special talent” is. He doesn’t have one, and neither do the vast majority of other kids with autism I know. He is not particularly bright at math and finds computers challenging due to the fine motor skills required. He probably won’t work at NASA. But he, too, is incapable of getting around a revolving door, as Lawyer Woo incongruously appears to be, and he has a wicked sense of humor. Unlike the one-dimensional protagonist on television, his autism does not define him.

Of course, it is challenging to represent a neurodevelopmental disorder that is not simply a condition with a single set of features. What is so often described as a spectrum is, in fact, a matrix of possibilities, ranging from relatively mild impairments to debilitating intellectual disabilities. Many of those affected will have difficulty communicating, tics, intense interests, but the particular symptoms vary dramatically. A significant proportion, between a quarter and a third, although the statistics diverge again, are minimally verbal.

That’s why it’s a problem when the only representation on screen is someone who doesn’t speak until 5 but then recites the Korean penal code. That’s a cartoon, not a character. Certainly one of the problems is that the neurotypical actress who plays the main character chose not to use real people as references, and instead studied the description of the diagnosis herself; in some ways, one step worse than simply failing to cast an actor with autism. It may be enough for entertainment, but it disappoints an entire community.

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There are some redeeming features. It’s nice to see a female autistic character, and indeed one who is not white. His obsession with facts about whales, his favorite subject, is exaggerated, but recognizable.

But it’s hard to get around how completely the show doesn’t capture the tests that everyday life brings, even to people with autism who are labeled “high-functioning,” as Woo would be. They are pressured to mask physical tics and stimulating movements (rocking, hand flapping) that act as a pressure valve and help control emotions. They report extremely high levels of stress. Saying or doing something awkward out of context inadvertently isn’t a funny joke, like on the show; it is a cause of paralyzing anxiety.

More than that, by choosing a successful attorney, the show ignores that some of the most challenging battles for people with autism are financial and professional. Employers can accommodate a genius, but statistics suggest they are less willing to give those who require other accommodations a chance. While more neurodivergent adults are getting jobs, still very few do. Statistics from the UK, for example, suggest that only a fifth of adults with autism are in paid employment, the lowest employment rate compared with other disabilities. Why not tell the majority story next time?

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

• After Covid, closing the autism jobs gap: Clara Ferreira Marques

• Young people will not find meaning in life at work: Allison Schrager

• People with disabilities need community services: Ari Ne’eman

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the UK, Italy and Russia.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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