Most-watched new series on Netflix sparks autism debate

Steph Deschamps / September 1, 2022

Extraordinary Attorney Woo has become the most watched non-English series on Netflix for over a month, following in the footsteps of another South Korean phenomenon, Squid Game. Even members of the influential K-pop group BTS are fans, to the point of posting a video of Young-Woo's signature greeting with her best friend that has been making the rounds on social media.
The 16 episodes follow the journey of a rookie lawyer whose disorder helps her develop brilliant solutions to legal puzzles but often leaves her socially isolated. While moving, the series has sparked a major debate about autism in South Korea. The lawyer Woo Young-woo appears extremely intelligent but also shows visible signs of autism such as echolalia - the precise repetition of words or phrases, often out of context.
Lead actress Park Eun-bin, 29, who has garnered rave reviews, reports that she was initially reluctant to accept the role, aware of the influence the series might have on the perception of people with autism. I felt I had a moral responsibility as an actress, she tells AFP.
I knew (the show) was inevitably going to have an impact on people with autism and their families, she explains, adding that she wondered if she was capable of portraying this complex character. It was the first time I had no idea what to do, how to express things, while reading the script, she admits. But in South Korea, some families with autistic people call the show pure fantasy and consider her character not believable.
For many people with autism spectrum disorders, succeeding like Me Woo would be like a child winning an Olympic medal in cycling without having learned to walk yet, Lee Dong-ju, the mother of an autistic child, told a local media outlet. While Me Woo is undoubtedly a fictional character created for maximum dramatic effect, his story is actually more real than many South Koreans realize, observes psychiatry professor Kim Eui-jung at Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital.
About one-third of people with autism spectrum disorders have average or above-average intelligence, she adds, and may not have visible autistic features, or even realize they have them.
This was the experience of Lee Da-bin, who was not diagnosed until late in life. Ms. Lee shares many traits with the lawyer character, from hypersensitivity to academic excellence despite being bullied. She grew up knowing she was different, blaming herself for not being able to fit in. It wasn't until she dropped out of school and began psychiatric treatment for depression that she was diagnosed with autism, making sense of her teenage torment in her relationships with others. It was a time when (I) didn't speak more than 10 words a day, Ms. Lee confides.
Public awareness and understanding of high-functioning autism is very limited in South Korea, says Kim Hee-jin, a professor of psychiatry at Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul. The general public views autism as a disorder that involves severe intellectual disability, she observes, which contributes to the general lack of early diagnosis and treatment. Follow-up at an early age can help people with autism not to feel guilty about the difficulties they face (...) for example in making and maintaining friendships. Lee Da-bin believes that an earlier diagnosis could have prevented enormous injury and pain.
Since her case was identified, she has been able to return to school with her sights set on a career in medicine. Like lawyer Woo Young-woo, whose difficulties in dating and dreams of independent living are touchingly described, Ms. Lee explains that she wants to live with a sense of independence and the ability to form relationships.
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