From syndrome to spectrum

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From syndrome to spectrum

Park Jeong-ho
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was not just a great statesman but also a master of English prose, receiving the Noble Prize for Literature in 1953. His quotes can be found in many places. Coincidentally, one of his quotes has been cited in two books on autism: “In a Different Key, The Story of Autism” by John Donvan and Caren Zucker and “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and Future of Neurodiversity” by Steve Silberman. The quote was, “The world, nature, human beings do not move like machines. The edges are never clear-cut, but always frayed. Nature never draws a line without smudging it.”

The wartime leader had the wisdom to preach the importance of diversity and acceptance of differences in mankind.

The TV drama “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” about the trials and errors of a rookie lawyer — an autistic savant with a photographic memory confronting a biased society and criminal justice system — has been creating a furor. Her growing pains and colleagues and friends who see her through have touched people’s hearts amid economic hardship and unceasing virus dangers. Despite finishing her law school at the top and getting near perfect scores in her bar exam, Woo couldn’t find a job as she did not hide on her resume that she was suffering from an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

She explains that autism is followed by the word spectrum because of the great variety of cases included in the disorder.

ASD has been recognized as a disability through the sufferings and devotion of parents across the world. The disorder, defined as a condition related to brain development that influences how a person perceives the outside world and socializes with others, has only been accepted for around 30 years. American psychiatrist Lorna Wing, who had a daughter with a developmental disorder, discovered numerous different cases after meeting children with the disorder previously dubbed Asperger’s Syndrome. She came up with the idea to add the term spectrum to the word disability.

People with the disorder were labeled schizophrenic, self-absorbed, dumb, or mad. But Wing transformed the condition into a spectrum that can be as varied as a rainbow.

The drama “Woo” follows this painful evolution of autism. Woo Young-woo, the heroine, is fictional. Despite her disability, she has exceptional intelligence and was fortunate to be educated in a loving environment. This is far from reality. Most parents with children with ASD are pained by their uncommunicative and disconnected state. Many are isolated at home even as adults. Many left Korea because of an uncaring society and system.

Korean politicians are often described as being ASD patients for their self-absorption. The drama teaches how such a comparison stems from prejudice and ignorance. The disorder has lately been addressed under the context of “neuro-diversity.”

Evolution is often accompanied by confusion. Child psychiatrist Kang Byung-chul, who translated the two books cited above, said that it can be controversial for parents to deny treatment of their child with ASD citing its congenital nature. Could such a denial reflect diversity? Kang welcomed the growing understanding of ASD as a “difference,” not “disorder.” The 1988 movie “Rain Man” helped raise public awareness of the disorder. The descendants would be “smudging” in greater diversity in today’s world. The key to political confusion also could be found in such understanding of differences.
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