'Woo' gets mixed reviews from people who know about autism
The main character in "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" is an autistic genius who is just high functioning enough to practice law, in court.
For KT Studio Genie and distributors Netflix and ENA, it's been great. For people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and those who study it, the series has brought recognition and understanding, and a degree of concern.
In the show, a young lawyer named Woo Young-woo, portrayed by actress Park Eun-bin, has Savant Syndrome, a rare condition in which a person with a developmental disorder such as ASD has exceptional abilities or talent. Woo is described in the show as a genius, who can memorize entire books and recall and analyze complex sets of information easily.
One of the criticisms about "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" is whether such a genius lawyer with autism is possible in real life. Some question whether the character being a savant is plausible.
The Korea JoongAng Daily asked parents of children with ASD, doctors specializing in psychiatry and cultural critics about the differences and similarities between ASD depicted in the show and actual cases, and the possible social influence of the show.
"About 10 percent of those with ASD do have Savant Syndrome," said Bahn Geon-ho, a professor of psychiatry at Kyung Hee University College of Medicine. "It can range from exceptional memorization and analytical skills, as in the case of Woo, to simply being able to memorize certain types of information, such as the Seoul subway map or showing talent in the fields of music and art."
ASD manifests itself in a wide range of characteristics and mannerisms. Woo herself mentions this in the show, saying that all autistic people are unique, when she meets a client who also has ASD but shows different characteristics.
Unlike Woo, who has Savant Syndrome and is high-functioning, the autistic client is unable to hold a long conversation and has more trouble interacting with those around him.
The depiction of high-functioning autism is another point of discussion.
High-functioning autism is not a medical diagnosis, according to doctors, but simply a way of categorizing a person of ASD who is able to converse in length, keep a job and socialize with others.
While some have pointed out that high-functioning autistic people do not exhibit as many routine characteristics as Woo does — the repetition of words, imitating other's speech, playing with her fingers or rocking herself back and forth — it is perfectly possible, according to Joung Yoo-sook, a professor of psychiatry at Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine.
"High-functioning autistic persons can show such characteristics," said Joung. "Every case of ASD is different, so it's hard to say definitely that some categories show such and such characteristics."
What isn't quite plausible is the way that the main protagonist Woo quickly learns to socialize with her colleagues and develops empathy toward her clients, according to Joung.
"Those with ASD can learn social interaction and develop emotional connections, but it takes a long time," said Joung, adding that "a television show is fiction, and we shouldn't watch it as a documentary."
Another miss is when ASD was first diagnosed. In the show, a young Woo is taken to a hospital by her father at age five because she does not speak until that age. In reality, most ASD cases are determined between the ages of one and two.
"If the characteristics are severe, it is possible to diagnose ASD before 12 months," said Joung. "And if they are mild, it is diagnosed around 24 months, but typically diagnoses are made between 12 to 24 months."
Still, "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" is receiving generally positive reviews with its depiction of autism, with many saying that it has realistically portrayed those with ASD. Kim Bo-mi, 35, a resident of Asan, who is a parent of an autistic child, singled out the monotone speech of Woo as one of the main points that she found mirrored actual ASD.
"Woo's monotone speech and the way she talks is very similar to how my son talks," said Kim.
Another similarity between those with ASD in real life and Woo in the show is the obsession with or tendency to concentrate on certain objects or food. In the show, Woo loves whales, and constantly talks about them, while almost exclusively eating gimbap for meals. This characteristic is very similar to actual ASD cases, according to Bahn.
"A lot of autistic children are very picky eaters," said Bahn. "They dislike the taste of certain food and in many cases favor sweets, so there are actually many cases of obesity that come along with ASD."
In the most recent episode of "Extraordinary Attorney Woo," the relationship between Woo and her colleague Lee Jun-ho, portrayed by actor Kang Tae-oh, took a romantic turn. This left viewers wondering how often those with ASD date and get married in real life.
"Dating and marriage for autistic people are not implausible," said Bahn. "They do happen. But the marriage would be very hard to maintain. Some studies have followed the lives of those with ASD and marriage is rare. I would say about one out of a hundred cases make it, or the percentage could be even lower."
Regardless of how many marks "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" has hit or missed with its portrayal of autism, the fact that a television series featuring ASD has been made and that it has become popular signals a positive influence on the public awareness of the disorder, experts say.
"In the United States, for example, the general notion regarding autism was very discriminatory and involved a lot of misunderstanding until the release and success of the film 'Rain Man' in 1988," said Bahn.
It feels especially close at heart with families of those with ASD, as they believe that much of the misunderstanding comes from lack of either knowledge or interest in the condition.
"I think there a lot of things that people find daunting about autism because they just don't know much about it," said Kim, the parent with an ASD child.
"As a parent of an autistic child, I can say that most people are actually quite benevolent toward or simply uninterested in autism. But the small number of offensive or hostile attitudes can feel like everything to us."
The numerous discussions that have started to take place around the drama and the condition is the very proof of improvement, according to drama and pop culture critic Gong Hee-jung.
"We can't expect a television show to really portray what it is like for autistic people and their families, but a show like 'Extraordinary Attorney Woo' will help steer general understanding of autism towards improvement," said Gong. "It will be an opportunity for us as a society to reflect on the prejudices that we unknowingly had."
BY LIM JEONG-WON [firstname.lastname@example.org]