A Netflix hit is a missed opportunity for autism


After the torment of indebted souls in “Squid Game,” South Korea fell in love with a feel-good courtroom drama with an unusual protagonist – a young lawyer with autism. “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” was the most popular non-English series on Netflix for weeks this summer, and the season finale, which aired last month, broke viewing records for broadcaster ENA.

What a shame that this runaway success misses an opportunity to educate as much as entertain.

A disabled lead character is a welcome change of pace for South Korea’s entertainment industry, a juggernaut best known for its clean cast and polished pop acts. Here, as in much of the world, there is stigma and autism is often misunderstood. The problem is that while representation is important, cliched representations like this don’t seek to show people with disabilities for who they are. On the contrary, they are shown as the audience wishes. In this case, clumsy but pretty, very successful academically, chaining professional triumphs one after the other.

In fact, Scholar Syndrome – responsible for the legal brilliance with which main character Woo Young-woo constantly impresses his colleagues – is rare. Statistics vary, but perhaps 1 in 10 people with autism show savant skills, and few of those with the degree of virtuosity displayed here. The reality for the vast majority of people with autism couldn’t be further from Woo. It is more banal, more complicated and much more difficult. Not least because, for too many people, the workplace remains totally out of reach. Maybe those struggles wouldn’t have made for comfort television.

The depiction of people with autism as weird geniuses dates back to the 1988 movie “Rain Man” and Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond Babbitt, a savant who can memorize the phone book but is overwhelmed by the world. The performance won Hoffman an Oscar and brought autism to the fore. Unfortunately, it has also created lasting stereotypes that impact how society views people with autism, their abilities and their limitations. More modern versions of the same idea, such as “The Good Doctor” series, about a medical prodigy with autism (which exists in American and Korean versions), continue to fuel misconceptions around a disease now estimated to affect approximately 1 in 44 8-year-olds in the United States.

There have been more successful efforts to tackle autistic fictional characters that aren’t just plotlines, and perhaps Detective Saga Noren in the Nordic noir series “The Bridge” (even if she’s not never identified as autistic) comes close to something believable. Documentaries, like “The Reason I Jump” or “Billy the Kid,” grounded in real life, do best when it comes to giving audiences an accurate snapshot.

But tropes are hard to shake, and as the parent of an autistic child, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked what his “special talent” is. He doesn’t, nor do the overwhelming majority of other autistic children I know. He is not particularly good at math and finds computers difficult due to the fine motor skills required. He probably won’t work at NASA. But he’s also not incapable of negotiating a revolving door, as the lawyer Woo incongruously seems to be, and he has a fearsome sense of humor. Unlike the one-dimensional TV protagonist, his autism doesn’t define him.

Admittedly, it is a challenge to represent a neurodevelopmental disorder that is not simply a condition with a single set of characteristics. What is so often described as a spectrum is actually a matrix of possibilities, ranging from relatively mild impairments to debilitating intellectual disabilities. Many affected people will have difficulty communicating, tics, intense interests, but the particular symptoms vary widely. A significant proportion – between a quarter and a third, although again the statistics diverge – are very little verbal.

That’s why it’s a problem when the only depiction on screen is of someone not speaking until 5 o’clock but then reciting the Korean penal code. It’s a caricature, not a character. One of the problems is undoubtedly that the neurotypical actress playing the main character chose not to use real people as references and instead studied the description of the diagnosis – somehow a step worse than just failing to choose. an autistic actor. It may be enough for entertainment, but it lets down an entire community.

There are some trading features. Good to see an autistic female character, and indeed non-white. His obsession with whale facts, his favorite subject, is over the top, but recognizable.

But it’s hard to fathom how the program fails to capture the hardships that everyday life brings, even for people with autism who are labeled as “highly functional,” as Woo would be. They are forced to mask physical tics and stimming movements – rocking, clapping – which act as a pressure valve and help manage emotions. They report extremely high levels of stress. Unintentionally saying or doing something awkward out of context isn’t a fun joke, like on the show; it is a cause of crippling anxiety.

More than that, in choosing a successful lawyer, the program ignores that some of the toughest battles for people with autism are financial and professional. Employers might welcome a genius, but statistics suggest they’re less willing to give those who need other kinds of adjustments a chance. While more and more neurodivergent adults are getting jobs, far too few are still doing so. UK statistics, for example, suggest that only a fifth of adults with autism are in paid employment – ​​the lowest employment rate compared to other disabilities. Why not tell the story of the majority next time?

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• After Covid, Closing the Autism Jobs Gap: Clara Ferreira Marques

• Young people will not find the meaning of life at work: Allison Schrager

• People with Disabilities Need Community Services: Ari Ne’eman

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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