Claire Lee (AFP)
Thu, September 1, 2022
Netflix’s hit K-drama about a high-achieving autistic lawyer is sparking some soul-searching in South Korea, where some on the spectrum say they may feel invisible.
the endearing Extraordinary Lawyer Woostarring a neurodivergent lawyer, has been Netflix’s most-watched foreign-language show for over a month, following the lead of other Korean hits squid game.
Even K-pop sensation BTS is a fan of the global hit, and the band members posted a video performing the signature handshake between Woo and her best friend, a dance move that’s taking social media by storm.
But the 16-episode series, which follows a rookie lawyer whose condition helps her find brilliant solutions to legal conundrums but often leaves her socially isolated, has gone beyond memes to spark a serious debate about autism in South Korea.
Star lawyer Woo Young-woo is fiercely intelligent with an IQ of 164, but he also has visible autistic traits like echolalia, or the precise repetition of words or sentences, often out of context.
Lead actress Park Eun-bin, 29, who has received rave reviews, said she was initially hesitant to take the role, aware of the story’s power to impact perceptions of autistic people in South Korea and beyond.
“I felt I had a moral responsibility as an actress,” she told AFP.
“I knew [the show] it was inevitably going to have an influence on people with autism and their families,” Park said, adding that he had wondered if he would be able to pull off the complex character.
“It was the first time that I had no idea what to do when it came to expressing things, while reading the script,” he added.
‘Erased’ in South Korea
But in South Korea, some families of autistic people have described the show as pure “fantasy,” saying her character is unrealistic.
For many on the autism spectrum, achieving like Woo would be equivalent to “a child winning an Olympic cycling medal without being able to walk yet,” Lee Dong-ju, the mother of an autistic child, told a local broadcaster.
But while Woo was clearly “a fictional character created to maximize dramatic effect,” there was actually more truth to his story than many South Koreans realized, said psychiatry professor Kim Eui-jung of Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital.
About a third of people on the spectrum were of average or above average intelligence, he said, and they may not have any noticeable autistic features or may not even realize they have the condition.
This was the case for Lee Da-bin, who is on the spectrum but was not diagnosed until later in life.
“People don’t recognize mild forms of autism at all,” he said. “I feel like they’re erasing me.”
Lee shares many traits with the fictional Woo, from hypersensitivity to taste to academic excellence, despite being bullied. She grew up knowing that she was different, but she blamed herself for not being able to fit in.
It was only after he dropped out of school and began seeing a psychiatrist for depression that he was diagnosed with autism, and his adolescent struggles to connect with others began to make sense.
“It was a life where you didn’t even speak 10 words a day,” Lee told AFP of his time at school. “I’ve lived my whole life thinking I’m just a weird person. […] And it’s my fault that I don’t get along with other people.
“Public awareness or understanding of high-functioning autism is still very limited in South Korea,” said Kim Hee-jin, a professor of psychiatry at Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul.
The general public viewed autism as “a condition involving severe intellectual disability,” he said, adding that this contributed to broader failures to diagnose and offer support early on.
Early interventions could help prevent people on the spectrum from “blaming themselves for the challenges they face due to autism, such as difficulty making and keeping friends.”
For Lee Da-bin, knowing about her condition earlier in life could have helped her avoid enormous pain and injury.
Since receiving his diagnosis, he has been able to restart his studies with the ultimate goal of a career in medicine.
And, like the fictional Lawyer Woo, whose struggles with dating and dreams of living fully independently are poignantly portrayed on the hit show, Lee says he wants a life with a sense of agency and connection.
“I want to make enough money to support myself and pay for my own place, where I can live with someone I love,” he said.