TV drama sparks autism debate in South Korea

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

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Associate Attorney Woo is the most-watched non-English series on the Netflix platform for over a month, following in the footsteps of another South Korean phenomenon. Squid Game.

Even members of influential K-pop group BTS are fans of it, to the point that they’ve posted a video of the signature salute between Young-Woo and his best friend that has been doing the rounds on social media.

The 16 episodes follow the journey of a novice lawyer whose disorder helps her find brilliant solutions to legal mysteries but often leaves her in situations of social isolation.

Though moving, the series has sparked a profound debate about autism in South Korea.

Lawyer Woo Young-woo appears to be extremely intelligent, but also displays visible signs of autism such as echolalia – the precise repetition of words or phrases, often taken out of context.

Lead actress Park Eun-bin, 29, who has received rave reviews, said she was initially reluctant to accept the role, aware of the impact the series could have on the perceptions of people with autism.

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

“I knew[the show]would inevitably have an impact on people with autism and their families,” she explains, adding that she wonders if she would be able to embody this complex character.

“It was the first time reading the script that I had no idea what to do, how to phrase things,” she admits.

“Invisible”

But in South Korea, some families with autism call the show purely “fantasy” and disbelieve its character.

For many people with an autism spectrum disorder, an achievement like Me Woo would be like “a kid winning an Olympic cycling medal without being able to walk,” Lee Dong-ju, mother of an autistic child, told local media .

While Me Woo is undoubtedly “a fictional character created to maximize dramatic effect,” his story is actually more true than many South Koreans believe, observes psychiatry professor Kim Eui-jung at Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital.

About a third of people with autism spectrum disorders have average or above-average intelligence, she adds, and may not display visible autistic traits or may not even recognize them.

This is what happened to Lee Da-bin, whose diagnosis came late.

“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 attorney character, from hypersensitivity to academic excellence, despite being bullied. She grew up knowing she was different and blaming herself for not being able to adjust.

It was only after dropping out of school and entering psychiatric treatment for depression that her autism was diagnosed, giving meaning to her anguish as a teenager in her relationships with others.

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

“I’d 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, professor of psychiatry at Seoul’s Chung-Ang University Hospital.

The general public views autism as “a disorder associated with severe intellectual disability,” she observes, contributing to the general lack of early diagnosis and treatment.

Monitoring, started from an early age, can help people with autism “not feel guilty about the difficulties they encounter (…) in making and maintaining friendships, for example”.

Lee Da-bin believes an earlier diagnosis could have saved him from serious injury and pain.

Since her case was discovered, she has been able to resume her studies with an aspiring medical career.

Like attorney Woo Young-woo, whose struggles with dating and dreams of independent living are touchingly portrayed, Ms. Lee explains that she wants to feel empowered and able to build relationships.

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

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