TV series sparks autism debate in South Korea

TV series sparks debate over autism in South Korea

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

Extraordinary Attorney Woo has become Netflix's most-watched non-English series 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 of posting a video of the signature salute between Young-Woo and his best friend that has been making the rounds on social media.

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The 16 episodes follow the journey of a rookie lawyer whose disorder helps her craft brilliant solutions to legal puzzles but often lands her in situations of social isolation.

Although moving, the series has sparked a deep debate on autism in South Korea.

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, says she was initially hesitant to accept the role, aware of the influence the series could have on the perception of people with autism.

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

< p>“It was the first time that I had no idea what to do, how to put things, while I was reading the script,” she admits.

< p>“Invisible”

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

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

While Me Woo is unquestionably “a fictional character created to maximize dramatic effect,” his story is actually truer than many South Koreans believe, observes the Professor of Psychiatry Kim Eui-jung at Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital.

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

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This was the experience of 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 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 starting psychiatric treatment for depression that her autism was diagnosed, giving meaning to her torments as a teenager in her relationships with others.

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

“I had spent my whole life thinking I was just a weird person. …and that it was my fault that I couldn't relate to others.”

Limited understanding

“Public awareness of high-functioning autism and its understanding are very limited in South Korea,” said Kim Hee-jin, 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, contributing to the general lack of early diagnosis and treatment.

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

Lee Da-bin thinks that an earlier diagnosis could have prevented enormous injuries and pain.

Since her case was detected, she has been able to resume her studies with a career in medicine.

Like lawyer Woo Young-woo, whose struggles with dating and dreams of independent living are touchingly portrayed, Ms. Lee explains that she wishes to live feeling independent and able to build relationships.

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