Netflix’s global hit Extraordinary Attorney Woo tells the tale of a young lawyer with Autism Spectrum Disorder. But just how much of its portrayal is realistic? Can a person with ASD hold down a job? Can she fall in love? Behaviour therapy-trained HarvestKidz teacher Alicia Lim shares her views.
“Woo to the Young to the Woo!” “Dong to the Geu to the Rami!”
Anyone on TikTok and other social media platforms must be familiar with this funny greeting (complete with hand motions and a dab) from the Netflix series, Extraordinary Attorney Woo. You might be hard pressed to find a Netflix account holder who hasn’t watched at least one episode of this smash hit series.
What’s so unusual about this series is that its lead character is a woman with autism. Shows about men with autism, such as Good Doctor (a Korean drama that was successfully adapted for the US) and Move To Heaven are rare, but portrayals of women with autism are rarer still. Not only that but this drama effectively fleshes out her struggles, her desires and her ultimate humanity along with her quirks.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo is a hope-filled show that celebrates the success in career and life that a person with special needs can have. But just how realistic is it?
HOW TO TELL IF A CHILD MAY HAVE ASD
In the show, Woo Young Woo’s father raises his daughter singlehandedly, worried that she has never spoken a word, refuses eye contact, and does not respond to anything he says. Quite accidentally, he discovers she is not only able to speak but has memorised every word in his law textbook. It turns out Woo Young Woo is an autistic savant with an IQ of 164.
Extraordinary Attorney Woo is fairly accurate in its portrayal of a young child with ASD.
“Typically, a child with ASD has social communication and interaction difficulties. Hence, in most cases, they prefer to play alone. They also show difficulty in using non-verbal communication, like gestures, pointing or eye contact,” explains Alicia Lim, a member of City Harvest Church’s HarvestKidz staff who was formerly a behavioural therapist helping children with ASD, Down Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other related disorders. Alicia believes in taking a dynamic approach in helping young children and individuals with special needs to reach their highest potential.
Like the father in the show, parents may observe signs that indicate that their child has ASD or a related disorder.
“The child may have repetitive behaviours or restricted interests, and he may lack imaginative play,” she describes. “They also display repetitive hand or body movements such as hand flapping or spinning their body—we call these stimming behaviours. From time to time, children with ASD also engage in repetitive play or play with toys in an unusual manner like lining them up.
“A child with ASD prefers fixed routines and rituals and can be resistant to changes or transitions. He might have under- or over-sensitivity to sensory aspects in his surroundings, such as sound, smell, taste, even the way things look.
“You will also notice there will be delays in social or language developmental milestones, like not responding to names and not giving eye contact.”
In reality, Alicia points out, not every person with autism is like Woo Young Woo.
“Autism is a spectrum disorder,” she explains. “This means the child can fall anywhere within or between different levels. Every person with autism is different in one way or another.”
3 LEVELS OF AUTISM
Alicia explains that there are three broad levels of autism:
Level 1: Requires Support (Mild)
“This is the mildest, or the most “high-functioning” form of autism. A person with Level 1 ASD may need help navigating through life as he or she may have trouble planning and organising. They can usually communicate in full sentence but has trouble engaging in meaningful conversation with others. Hence, making friends can be difficult for them.”
Level 2: Requires Substantial Support
“A person with Level 2 ASD tends to speak in simple sentences and also struggles with nonverbal forms of communication. You will see them having repetitive behaviours and limited social interests. They may have trouble with non-verbal cues, such as understanding facial expressions, reading emotions, understanding gestures, tone of voice and even understanding the concept of personal space. They may or may not need one-to-one support, but they definitely need help handling every day challenges.”
Level 3: Requires Very Substantial Support (Severe)
“This is the most severe form of autism. They often need one-to-one support. A person with Level 3 ASD has limited ability to speak clearly and he or she will rarely socialise. They have the same behaviours as those in Level 1 and 2, but to a higher degree. They may also not respond to people when they are called; they may only respond to a direct approach from others. They display obvious traits, such as hand flapping.”
So what level of autism does Woo Young Woo have? To explain, Alicia refers to Episode 3: “This Is Pengsoo”. In this story, Woo Young Woo is roped in to defend Jeong Hun, an adult with autism who is accused of murdering his brother.
“This episode demonstrates the distinction between two persons with autism who are at different points on the spectrum,” says Alicia. “Jeong Hun has minimal speech and does not have functional communication skills. He is also not able to express himself or explain what really happened. On the other hand, Attorney Woo Young Woo has the ability to communicate and navigate through different situations, whether it’s asking questions to find out the facts, or learning from others.
“In my opinion, Jeong Hun appears to fall under Level 3 of ASD while Attorney Woo falls under Level 1 of ASD and has savant-like abilities, such as her extraordinary memory. But take note that not all smart people with ASD can be categorised as savants—some are simply talented,” she adds. It is estimated that 10 percent of persons with ASD are savant or display savant behaviour.
FEARFULLY & WONDERFULLY MADE
Alicia’s own journey into helping special needs children began a long time ago, when, as a volunteer with the children’s ministry, she met an unusual young boy.
“I was quite young at that time, so I did not know the medical term for it,” she remembers. “All I knew was that the boy behaved rather oddly. He did not look at me, he had trouble initiating social interaction, and seemed to prefer to be on his own. I felt helpless because I did not know how to engage him.”
What was a challenge turned out to be a calling. “Instead of judging the boy, I felt God give me compassion for people like him. In one of my previous part-time jobs at a local kindergarten, God opened a door for me to work with a group of children—one of them had Down Syndrome and a few others were on the autism spectrum.”
Now, in her work with HarvestKidz, she is well-placed to help children with special needs and parents who may only be at the start of their journey with their special child. “Research has shown and I do see an increase in cases of ASD and development and learning issues in our children,” Alicia says. “That could also be due to an increase in awareness and testing as parents are more well-read now.”
She advocates for inclusiveness in society—including church and schools—for people with special needs. “We’ve seen over centuries how inclusion brings breakthrough to the world,” she says, citing the abolition of slavery, the end of apartheid and changes in law and society that gave women rights to education and work.
She continues, “People with autism have the ability to contribute to society in their own ways with their God-given talents if we give them a chance. It will help them if we include and accept them just the way they are, instead of trying to force them into a mould dictated by society.”
This is why shows like Extraordinary Attorney Woo are important, because they help break down stereotypes and false perceptions about persons with ASD, and model how including them into the workplace and society looks like, says Alicia.
Such inclusion already is beginning to take place in the world. “Singapore has a number of restaurants that hire people with special needs, isn’t that amazing?” she smiles. “I’ve also tried cookies made by someone with autism and they tasted wonderful!”
She asserts, “Often the problem does not lie in the person with a disability but in how we as a society view their disability.”
From Alicia’s personal experience, it is possible to help a child with autism to experience success in life. “There is a family I know,” she says. “Upon suspecting that her child had autism, more than just praying, the mother quickly sought help and enrolled the child in an early intervention programme. Today, that boy is integrated into one of our cell groups. All glory to God!”
It may be daunting for any parent to come to terms with their child having autism but Alicia emphasises that it is most important not to ignore the signs. “Quickly seek help! Speak to your paediatric doctor! Walk in to a polyclinic and ask for a referral!” she urges. “Don’t be afraid to seek help—there’s definitely no judgment in it. The earlier and faster you get help for your child, the better it is. As the child grows older, it can get harder for him or her to learn and unlearn certain behaviours as they may already have a fixed routine and thinking.”
Woo Young Woo’s father exemplifies how living and working with someone with autism can be tough, notes Alicia, but with the necessary help, his daughter was given the environment to grow and flourish.
“Every child is a gift from God and made wonderful by Him,” says Alicia. “Every child learns differently. Be equip with the necessary knowledge and work according to the pace of the child.
“Remember, your child is much more than a diagnosis!”
REAL LIFE MEETS ART?
Actress Park Eun-bin brings Woo Young Woo to life in a most admirable way. “I personally think she’s done an amazing job in this difficult role,” says Alicia, who is also a fan of the show. “She has said in interviews that she actually engaged a psychologist to help her understand what autism is and what its symptoms are! From there, she ‘created’ her very own Woo Young Woo, including all the common traits of ASD, such as having the routine of eating gimbap, putting on her headphones before going work and after, even covering her ears when she experiences sensory overload. Autism is a spectrum disorder, so there’s no one-size-fits-all model when comes to acting as a person with autism.”
But does a real-life Woo Young Woo exist? “In Florida, there is a lady called Haley Moss who became the state’s first female lawyer with autism,” says Alicia. “So I do believe that with support from society and family, a person with autism can definitely lead a meaningful life full of God’s purpose.”
What about falling in love, just like Woo Young Woo and her colleague Lee Jun Ho? “It is possible for a person with autism to lead a happy and meaningful life with intervention and support,” she reiterates, adding that while she doesn’t know of any real-life romances involving someone with ASD, there is another Netflix show to watch. “Love On The Spectrum is a cute matchmaking show for adults with autism and their journey to finding love.”
Alicia can, however, share some things to be mindful of when entering into a relationship with a person with ASD. “It definitely comes with its own set of challenges, but just like any other relationship, understanding and compromise are vital to make things work,” she shares.
“Learn to understand why your partner with ASD behaves in a certain manner, and you will be more forgiving as you realise he or she did not hurt you on purpose,” she suggests. “And if you are someone with ASD seeking a relationship, be open to understand your partner’s needs and communicate it to the best of your ability. Be open to make small changes!”
She says this is exemplified well in Extraordinary Attorney Woo. “I appreciate how Jun Ho shares his frustrations with Young Woo in a gentle way, and challenges her instead of brushing them aside. And Young Woo also communicates well with Jun Ho about their relationship, and she is willing to make small changes to accommodate him,” notes Alicia.
“I think one of the best things about being with someone with autism is that they are honest! They can be really straightforward in their speech and will not beat around the bush, making you second-guess!” she laughs.
If you wish to find out more about autism and how to support a person with ASD, visit the Autism Resource Centre.
Catch Extraordinary Attorney Woo on Netflix.
WHY DOES WOO YOUNG WOO OBSESS ABOUT WHALES?
There are a few reasons as to why persons with ASD obsess over certain things or toys.
Sensory sensitivity: Some children with ASD are inseparable from a toy or item because they like the way the toy feels.
Inflexibility: They may have trouble being flexible, and can develop rigidity in their thoughts and the way they perceive things. Whales (and in some cases dinosaurs or planets) are a topic that offer many facts and figures and are consistent and reliable to a person with ASD.
Rituals and routine: These brings familiarity and comfort to them as it is something predictable. Just like Woo Young Woo and her gimbap!
MYTHS ABOUT ASD
Myth: Persons with autism don’t feel emotion.
Alicia: “People with autism are completely capable of feeling emotions and giving affection.”
Myth: Autism can be outgrown.
Alicia: “Even though a person with ASD can never outgrow it, he is capable of leading a happy and meaningful life through appropriate intervention. Through intervention, his symptoms may lessen and become more manageable.”
Myth: Bad parenting can cause autism.
Alicia: “Absolutely not! And please never say this to a parent of a child with autism!”