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The TV drama ignites the autism debate in South Korea

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

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Extraordinary Lawyer Woo became the most viewed non-English series on the Netflix platform for over a month, following in the footsteps of another South Korean phenomenon, Squid game.

Members of the influential K-pop group BTS are also fans of it, to the point of posting a video of the signature greeting between Young-Woo and his best friend who is making the rounds on social media.

The 16 episodes follow the journey of an inexperienced lawyer whose disorder helps her find brilliant solutions to legal conundrums, but often puts her in situations of social isolation.

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

Attorney Woo Young-woo appears extremely intelligent but also exhibits 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 garnered rave reviews, says she was initially reluctant 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 (the show) would inevitably have an impact on people with autism and their families,” he explains, adding that he wondered if he could embody this complex character.

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

“Invisible”

But in South Korea, some families with autistic people call the series pure “fantasy” and consider its character to be unbelievable.

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

While Me Woo is unquestionably “a fictional character created to maximize dramatic effect,” her story is actually truer than many South Koreans believe, notes 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 characteristics, or even realize they have them.

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

“People don’t recognize mild forms of autism at all,” he 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 adapt.

It was only after she dropped out of school and started psychiatric treatment for depression that she was diagnosed with autism, making sense of her teenage torments in her relationships with others.

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

“I’d spent my entire 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 Seoul’s Chung-Ang University Hospital.

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

Monitoring initiated at a young age can help people with autism not “feel guilty about the difficulties they encounter (…) for example in forming and maintaining friendships”.

Lee Da-bin thinks an earlier diagnosis could have prevented him from suffering massive injuries and pain.

Since his case was detected, he has been able to resume his studies with a career in medicine in the crosshairs.

As attorney Woo Young-woo, whose struggles with dating and dreams of an independent life are touchingly described, Ms. Lee explains that she wants to live feeling empowered and able to forge relationships.

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

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