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Analysis | A Netflix Hit Is a Missed Autism Opportunity – The Washington Post

After the torment of indebted souls in “Squid Game,” South Korea has fallen for a feel-good courtroom drama with an unusual protagonist — a young lawyer with autism. “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” has been the most popular non-English series on Netflix for weeks this summer, and the season finale, which aired last month, smashed viewing records for broadcaster ENA. 
What a pity that this runaway success misses a chance to educate as well as entertain.
A main character with a disability is a welcome change of pace for South Korea’s entertainment industry, a behemoth better known for clean-cut actors and manicured pop bands. Here, as in much of the world, there is stigma, and autism is often misunderstood. The problem is that while representation is important, cliched portrayals like this one do not seek to show people with disabilities as they are. Rather, they are shown as audiences want them to be. In this case, awkward but pretty, academically high-achieving, notching up one professional triumph after another.
In fact, savant syndrome — responsible for the legal brilliance with which lead character Woo Young-woo constantly awes her colleagues — is rare. Statistics vary, but perhaps 1 in 10 people with autism show some savant skills, and not many of those with anything like the degree of virtuosity on display here. Reality for the vast majority of people with autism could not be more distant from Woo. It’s more mundane, more complicated and far more challenging. Not least because, for too many, the workplace remains out of reach entirely. Perhaps those struggles would not have made for comfort television.
The representation of people with autism as odd geniuses dates back to 1988 film “Rain Man” and Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt, a savant who can memorize the phone book but is overwhelmed by the world. The portrayal earned Hoffman an Oscar and brought autism to prominence. Unfortunately, it also created lasted stereotypes that impact the way society sees people with autism, their capacities and limitations. More modern versions of the same idea, like the series “The Good Doctor,” about a medical prodigy with autism (which exists in US and Korean versions), continue to feed misconceptions around a condition that is now estimated to affect about 1 in 44 US 8-year-olds.
There have been more successful efforts to tackle fictional characters with autism who are not just plot devices, and perhaps detective Saga Noren in the Nordic noir series “The Bridge” (even if she is never identified as having autism) comes close to something credible. Documentaries, like “The Reason I Jump” or “Billy the Kid,” anchored in real lives, do predictably better when it comes to giving audiences an accurate snapshot.
But tropes are hard to shake, and as the parent of a child with autism, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked what his “special talent” is. He doesn’t have one, and nor do the overwhelming majority of other children with autism I know. He’s not particularly brilliant at math and finds computers a challenge because of the fine motor skills required. He probably won’t work at NASA. But neither is he unable to negotiate a revolving door, as attorney Woo incongruously appears to be, and he has a wicked sense of humor. Unlike the one-dimensional TV protagonist, his autism does not define him.
Granted, it’s a challenge to represent a neurodevelopmental disorder that is not simply one condition with a single set of characteristics. What’s so often described as a spectrum is in fact a matrix of possibilities, ranging from relatively mild impairments to debilitating intellectual disabilities. Many of those affected will have difficulty communicating, tics, intense interests, but the particular symptoms vary dramatically. A significant proportion — between a quarter and a third, though again statistics diverge — are minimally verbal. 
That’s why it’s a problem when the only representation on screen is of someone who doesn’t talk until 5 but then recites the Korean criminal code. That’s a caricature, not a character. No doubt one of the problems is that the neurotypical actress playing the main character chose not to use real people as references and studied the diagnostic description instead — somehow a step worse than the simple failure to cast an actor with autism. It might suffice for entertainment, but it lets down an entire community.
There are some redeeming features. It’s good to see a female autistic character, and indeed a non-White one. Her obsession with facts about whales, her favorite topic, is exaggerated, but recognizable. 
But it’s hard to get around just how completely the program fails to capture the ordeals that every day life brings, even to people with autism who are labeled as “high functioning,” as Woo would be. They are pressured to mask physical tics and stimming — rocking, hand-flapping — movements that 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 funny joke, as in the program; it’s a cause of crippling anxiety. 
More than that, in choosing a successful lawyer, the program ignores that some of the most challenging battles for people with autism are financial and professional. Employers might accommodate a genius, but statistics suggest they are less willing to give those requiring other kinds of adjustments a chance. While more neurodivergent adults are getting jobs, still far too few do. UK statistics, for example, suggest that only a fifth of adults with autism are in paid work — the lowest employment rate when compared to other disabilities. Why not tell the story of the majority next time?
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• After Covid, Close the Autism Jobs Gap: Clara Ferreira Marques
• Young People Won’t Find Life’s Meaning 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 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, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
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