TV Drama Sparks Autism Debate in South Korea

TV Drama Sparks Autism Debate in South Korea

SEOUL | A Korean series starring an autistic lawyer with a high IQ is raising questions in South Korea, where people with autism say they feel “invisible.”

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Extraordinary Lawyer Woo has become the most watched non-English speaking series on the Netflix platform for more than a month, following in the footsteps of another South Korean phenomenon, squid game.

Even members of the influential K-pop group BTS are fans of him, to the point of posting a video of the trademark handshake between Young-Woo and his 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 come up with brilliant solutions to legal conundrums, but often lands her in situations of social isolation.

Though heartwarming, the series has sparked a deep debate about autism in South Korea.

Lawyer Woo Young-woo appears extremely intelligent, but he also displays 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, says she was initially hesitant to take the role, aware of the influence the series could have on the perception of people with autism.

“I felt I had a moral responsibility as an actress,” she told AFP.

“I knew that (the show) was inevitably going to have an impact on people with autism and their families,” he explains, adding that he wondered if he would be able to embody this complex character.

“It was the first time I had no idea what to do, how to put things together, while reading the script,” he admits.


But in South Korea, some families with autistic people call the series pure “fantasy” and consider his character not believable.

For many people with an autism spectrum disorder, succeeding like Me Woo would be for “a child to win an Olympic medal in cycling without having learned to walk yet,” Lee Dong-ju, mother of an autistic child, explains to local media. .

While Me Woo is indisputably “a fictional character created to maximize dramatic effect,” her story is actually truer than many South Koreans realize, observes psychiatry professor Kim Eui-jung at Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital.

About a third of people with autism spectrum disorder have average or above-average intelligence, he adds, and may not show visible autistic features, or even realize they have them.

This is what happened to Lee Da-bin, whose diagnosis was delayed.

“People don’t recognize mild forms of autism at all,” she says. “I feel like I’ve become invisible.”

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 was only after dropping out of school and beginning psychiatric treatment for depression that he was diagnosed with autism, making sense of his adolescent torments in his relationships with others.

“It was a time when (I) didn’t speak more than 10 words a day,” says Ms. Lee.

“I spent my whole life thinking that I was just a weird person… and that it was my fault that I couldn’t relate to other people.”

limited understanding

“Public awareness and understanding of high-functioning autism is very limited in South Korea,” said Kim Hee-jin, a professor of psychiatry at Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul.

The general public views autism as “a disorder involving severe intellectual disability,” he notes, contributing to a general lack of early diagnosis and treatment.

Follow-up started at an early age can help people with autism not “feel guilty about the difficulties they encounter (…) for example, in forming and maintaining friendships.”

Lee Da-bin believes that an earlier diagnosis could have prevented him from suffering major injuries and pain.

Since his case was detected, he has been able to resume his studies with a medical career in mind.

Like lawyer Woo Young-woo, whose struggles with dating and dreams of independent living are poignantly portrayed, Ms. Lee explains that she wants to live feeling empowered and capable of building relationships.

“I want to make enough money to support myself and pay for my own place where I can live with someone I love.”

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