With the explosion of widespread autism awareness, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is beginning to see representation in the media of other countries. One of these titles is Extraordinary Attorney Woo, a Korean comedy-drama series about a young attorney with autism. Extraordinary Attorney Woo was a smashing success in Korea and abroad, being the 8th most-watched Korean drama and the sixth most popular foreign show on Netflix of all time.
The show revolves around Woo Young-woo, a neurodivergent attorney and recent graduate of Seoul National University, the equivalent of an American Ivy League. She begins working at a law firm and trying cases as she adjusts to the world and the world adjusts to her.
At ABA Centers of Florida, we are committed to autism advocacy and acceptance. The media has always played an important role in spreading awareness for the lives of marginalized persons, including the neurodivergent. In this blog, we’d like to spotlight Extraordinary Attorney Woo, how the show handles its protagonist, and what it means for autism-related media.
1. Autism and Media
Autism portrayals in the media are a relatively new phenomenon, as the condition was only named in the 20th century and not comprehensively understood until the 1960s. The two most common tropes characters with autism fall under are “the savant” and “the different/quirky.” It didn’t take long for autism to hit the mainstream, with Rain Man being the highest-grossing film and Best Picture Academy Award winner in 1988. The film stars Dustin Hoffman as a mathematical genius who can’t function in society due to crippling anxieties and strict schedule adherence.
Those on the spectrum with savant-level abilities are uncommon but not unrealistic. Estimates indicate that one in ten neurodivergent children display some remarkable talent. Even in non-fiction media, such as Netflix’s hit dating show Love on the Spectrum, one of the participants is a mathematical savant who can perform incredibly large calculations in his head and determine what day of the week it was on any given date.
The genius with autism is an attractive trope for screenwriters due to the baked-in conflict. Protagonists on the spectrum face adversity and prejudice from the world, yet they can overcome this due to their talents and different perspectives. Since Rain Man’s success, characters with an explicit or implicit autism diagnosis frequently appear in media. Sometimes, their condition is used to explain intelligence, as in the case of Criminal Minds’ Spencer Reid, a detective with an IQ of 187. Other times, it explains quirky behavior in characters who otherwise fit in, like in the 2005 romantic comedy Mozart and The Whale.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo continues this savant trope with a few welcome autism-friendly twists.
2. Extraordinary Attorney Woo and Autism
The show’s protagonist is Woo Young-woo, a young woman who graduated law school Summa cum laude as The Republic of Korea’s first lawyer on the spectrum. She was non-verbal until age five when an argument between her father and their landlord caused her to speak the law for bodily injury from memory. Young-woo has an eidetic or photographic memory, meaning she has memorized long law books since infancy.
In the show’s first episode, she begins her job at a prestigious law firm handling all sorts of clients and arguing before judges and juries. This narrative framing device establishes a conflict between her difficulty communicating and her highly social career, which requires her to speak in public and understand the emotional states of her clients.
Young-woo exhibits many of the traits of autism. She prefers routines, always having the same breakfast and dinner daily. She is blunt, suffers from anxiety when dealing with social settings, and frequently suffers doubts, referring to herself as “Woo the foolish.” Additionally, she experiences echolalia, a condition characterized by the meaningless repetition of words.
As she adapts to the conditions of her career, she deals with the challenges of adult life. Korean dramas have taken the mantle of American telenovelas in popularity and adapted many tropes. Therefore, Woo falls in love with a man who understands her condition; she faces prejudice from a jealous adversary at the firm who tries to sabotage her and has mentors who try to see her behavior in the best light.
3. How Extraordinary Attorney Woo Succeeds
What sets Extraordinary Attorney Woo apart is the specificity and attention to detail given to her condition. Her repetition of words, a common trait seen in those with an autism diagnosis, is referred to by its proper scientific name. When dealing with her food pickiness, it’s explained that she has difficulty with unfamiliar textures. Woo also suffers from sensory overload when yelled at or accosted, and she wears earphones during her commutes to keep out unwanted noise. These are all hallmarks of the ASD diagnosis, instantly familiar to anyone who has experienced the condition.
Levity is another thing that sets the show apart. Korean dramas have different sensibilities and are comedic in ways American shows often would not. There are many lighthearted slapstick moments in Extraordinary Attorney Woo, such as Woo’s ongoing struggle with her law firm’s revolving door, which she can’t cross without imagining a waltz.
Added to the comedy is Woo’s fascination with whales, which her father warns her to avoid mentioning at the office. Those on the spectrum sometimes have specific fascinations with a narrow subject, and Woo’s love for whales comes into play when discussing cases and figuring out inventive legal solutions. When realizing she loves her coworker, Jun-ho, she thinks about him “as often as she thinks about whales.”
At no point is the lead character diminished or displayed as lesser because of her condition. Although others struggle to adapt to her personality and she sometimes doubts herself, these are realities consistent with the experiences of those on the spectrum. What makes Attorney Woo extraordinary is her tremendous sense of morality and kindness that disarms those around her. Overall, the show portrays the condition with dignity and centers on a character that kids on the spectrum can aspire to be.
ABA Centers of Florida and Autism Awareness
At ABA Centers of Florida, it’s our mission to offer the best care possible for those with an ASD diagnosis, giving them the skills necessary to thrive in our busy world. We specialize in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, the gold-standard method proven to teach healthy coping mechanisms to neurodivergent kids. With play therapy, positive reinforcement, and teaching in your child’s preferred environment, they can learn academic and interpersonal abilities that last a lifetime.
As proud members of the autism community, we help organize social events throughout South Florida. ABA Centers of Florida plans frequent trips to parks, zoos, museums, movies, and celebrations that the entire family can enjoy. Call (772) 773-1975 or contact us through our website and discover how we can help you and your loved one live a better future.