Neurodiversity and Nuance on Netflix

After watching The Extraordinary Attorney Woo, a South Korean Netflix series, I asked my husband and three adult children if they would watch the first episode and then write me a paragraph about their immediate impressions. I was curious to know what each of them would think, realizing they were likely to focus on differing elements, and also how their impressions might be similar to or different from my own. Happily, they agreed, they watched, and they replied.

As background for those of you who haven’t yet seen the show, it tells the story of Woo Young-woo, a young lawyer with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). The show depicts how Attorney Woo’s intelligence and photographic memory help her to become an excellent lawyer, in part due to her ability to recall laws and everything she reads, sees, or hears perfectly. However, as she is different from her neurotypical peers, her communication style is initially seen as odd, off-putting, and awkward; her strong emotional intelligence is initially unrecognized. Another theme that runs through the series is Young-woo’s strong interest in whales and other marine mammals. Her tendency to analogize situations she faces in her professional and private life with the lives and characteristics of whales and dolphins often surprises and confounds the people who surround her, but her super power and her eureka moments often coincide with how she engages her knowledge of marine animals with her personal and professional life.

One of my kids (we call them ‘goats’ as kids sounds too young and they are of course the “greatest of all time”) told me that they found The Extraordinary Attorney Woo captivating from the very beginning, at the outset hypothesizing that Woo Young Woo was a selective mute, and then later feeling angry while watching the other lawyers laugh at and make fun of her on her first day of work.  They empathized with Woo’s frustration at their assumptions that she was incapable just because she wasn’t an “ordinary” lawyer, and found the way Attorney Woo stood up for herself and her client to be inspiring. They thought the show was a beautiful depiction of the impact mental health diagnoses can have on an individual; ASD being just one example of how diagnoses can impact one’s functioning in life and in the workplace.

Another of my ‘goats’ identified with the OCD-aspects of Young Woo’s personality, and could relate to her protective habit of forbidding subjects from discussion, as previously, they too have run into situations which in retrospect they recognized as having been awkward on account of not having adequately gauged how interested or not others were in a subject-matter they were eager to share about. Just as Young Woo has to remember “don’t talk about whales at work”, they too have self-censored in order not to make certain social faux-pas, but also recall times when those self-imposed restrictions had detrimental impacts on relationships with other people.

Another of my children told me they thought the acting was phenomenal across the entire cast, and that the autism representation was nuanced and elegant. They also thought the director did an excellent job depicting Woo Young Woo’s technical memory of the law and how that played to her advantage, without making that the single focal point of the show. They enjoyed watching Young Woo find loopholes where others couldn’t because of the way her brain functions, and thought the interpersonal intricacies were quite apt.

My husband thought that the actress, Park Eun-bin, did an incredible job of portraying Young Woo’s transition from being nonverbal to hyper verbalizing criminal code, and also thought her illustration of ASD was amazing, not only in terms of how she used words but especially in terms of her hand and body gestures. He also felt that Young Woo’s need to learn how to be assertive in certain environments and not in others was well represented in terms of the tendency of individuals with ASD to not have good modulation; she is often shown to quickly vacillate between needing control, seeking calm, and then moving to aggressive positions – being all on or all off.  In addition, he thought the videography captured the rhythm of thoughtful pauses in Young Woo’s thinking, by making clear pauses in action followed by a sudden visual connection of the dots, a great way to show her flashes of insight, coupling that detail with the wind in her hair and the precision of her facial expressions. He was also struck by the excellent scripting in terms of Young Woo’s ability to scan the entire legal code and then piece together deep connections between the circumstances of a case and the law, without being constrained by needing to pigeonhole a case as criminal or civil, or to feel restricted by a specific charge. Instead, she is able to look more globally at a situation and become one with her client’s experience.  Finally, he saw her use of whale analogies as her empathy monitor, the baseline she used to judge her feelings.

For me, the most powerful impression was of Young-Woo as a little girl, long before she became a lawyer. There’s an early scene that portrays her speaking her first words in which everyone who knew her was stunned, both by her speaking and by her demonstrated encyclopedic knowledge of a complex legal subject. This scene resonated deeply with me, perhaps because it reminded me of a story I often heard my mother (who was an educator, and founded the first program in the U.S. for college students with dyslexia) tell to parents who were anxious about a child who wasn’t speaking at a developmentally-typical time. She would tell them that she once knew a little boy who didn’t talk until he was about five years old.  However, one morning as his mother prepared his usual breakfast, the little boy blurted out “You burnt the toast!”

Stunned, she dropped the plate, and asked him why he’d never spoken before. He simply said “Up till now, everything was fine.”

Although she told that story to give parents hope and perspective about children who sometimes had radically different developmental milestones, it made me recall times when we as a society were less focused on diagnoses, and recognized that we do not all walk in lockstep. That having been said, it seems to me that we have made great societal gains in our understanding of neurodiversity and the importance of inclusivity.

Reflecting on my small family survey confirms for me the breadth of our unique experiences and how sharing them with one another informs us all and can build understanding.  The Extraordinary Attorney Woo is an extraordinary show. It’s engaging and thought-provoking, and helps us recognize our collective abilities to harness the strengths each of us brings to the proverbial table. None of us is as strong as all of us.

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