Commentary: Neurodivergence is not a gift. Saying we have ‘superpowers’ does not erase the struggles
Amid the growing representation in the media of neurodivergent individuals such as those with autism or ADHD, we should be mindful that stories of empowerment don’t downplay their very real, everyday struggles, says CNA's Grace Yeoh.
SINGAPORE: My favourite character in Extraordinary Attorney Woo – the South Korean Netflix hit about an autistic lawyer – is not the titular character, endearing as the underdog narrative may be.
It is Woo Young-woo’s supervisor, Attorney Jung Myung-seok.
When Woo first joins the law firm, Jung doesn’t hide his hesitance to welcome her to his team due to her awkwardness. But he reluctantly gives her a chance to handle her first case after the firm’s CEO agrees that he can dismiss her if she doesn’t perform.
Throughout the series, Jung slowly warms up to Woo’s behaviour. While he remains perplexed by her immediate echolalia (the repetition of certain phrases or sounds made by another person) or her seemingly irrelevant references to whales during conversations, his pride is evident when she shines in court thanks to her intelligence and photographic memory.
And by the end of the series, having grown to appreciate her, his jibes at her mannerisms are more affection than annoyance.
Even though Jung’s initial reactions might rub some the wrong way, I see him as a part-accurate, part-aspirational depiction of those who may harbour ingrained, albeit unintentional, ableism – but who also attempt to overcome their internalised bias by getting to know autistic individuals personally.
AN ACCURATE REPRESENTATION OF THE AUTISTIC COMMUNITY?
With society’s penchant for an underdog success story, the popularity of Extraordinary Attorney Woo has reignited interest in autism narratives.
The 16-episode series has received valid criticism that it paints an overly fantastical portrait of autistic individuals, by leaning into the savant stereotype. This narrative tends to turn neurodivergent behaviours into cute quirks, for the benefit of a neurotypical society.
Society operates according to neurotypical benchmarks – that is, brain functions, behaviours and processing that are considered standard or typical.
And autism, as a neurodevelopmental condition, falls under the umbrella of neurodiversity, which describes the idea that people experience the world in many different ways. Simply put, there is no single “right” way of thinking, learning and behaving.
Yet, despite a growing awareness of neurodiversity, stereotypes around autistic individuals remain prevalent - and the show doesn’t shy away from this reality.
Some have said that the ableism Woo faced from her colleagues displays actual treatment towards the autistic community in reality.
Characters like Jung as well as fellow junior lawyer Attorney Kwon Min-woo, who was jealous and resentful of Woo, simply show that not everyone will immediately embrace autistic or other neurodivergent individuals. Their behaviours are not meant to reinforce discrimination but reflect it.
Moreover, while there may be autistic individuals who do excel because of their condition, the reality for the majority is far more complex. Keep in mind too that savant syndrome is rare, with experts estimating that about 10 per cent of the autistic population have such abilities in varying degrees.
Several episodes in Extraordinary Attorney Woo attempt to strike this balance. In one episode where Woo meets an autistic client with high support needs, the client’s mother admits that she initially felt conflicted seeing her son next to Woo. Most autistic individuals are like her son, she said.
Woo also frequently articulates her struggle to understand others, as well as hating that she makes others feel lonely. As much as she may appear to be thriving on the surface, she is fully aware that she does not fit in society.
COMPLEXITY IN AUTISM NARRATIVES
For all its stereotyping, Extraordinary Attorney Woo is a commendable effort to inject nuance into existing narratives about autism.
Traditionally, autistic individuals are portrayed in the media as having low neurological development, who need caregivers to complete the simplest of tasks.
To counter this narrative, many of us seek to empower autistic individuals and their loved ones by focusing on stories where high-performing autistic individuals like Woo achieve conventional success precisely due to their autistic traits, such as inordinate attention to detail or routine.
In this narrative, autism is painted as a superpower. It intends to empower autistic individuals and their loved ones by showing that autistic individuals can achieve such success because of their autism, rather than in spite of it.
It also increases awareness that the condition falls on a spectrum, and even shows employers how they can support neurodiversity in their companies.
But narratives that gloss over the genuine struggles of living with a neurodevelopmental condition, especially one that presents various challenges including mental health issues due to societal misconceptions, may end up more invalidating than empowering.
According to the Institute of Mental Health’s website, about one in 150 children in Singapore has autism spectrum disorder. For attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), another neurodevelopmental condition, around 5 per cent of children are estimated to have it.
For autism awareness month in April last year, I worked with a colleague on several articles about such autistic individuals with low support needs. I was struck by two main schools of thought.
The first advocates for society to embrace autism as a “difference in ability”, rather than a disability. For these individuals, autism is a core part of one’s identity, so it is impossible to separate the individual from their autism.
It also advocates that true acceptance means individuals shouldn’t be expected to alter their behaviours to fit in.
The other school of thought tends to acknowledge that living with a neurodevelopmental condition like autism fundamentally puts someone at a disadvantage. So enhancing one’s life necessitates adjusting to neurotypical ways, such as learning how to interact in social situations or developing greater emotional intelligence.
Picking up these skills might be seen as “masking”, which is frowned upon in some neurodivergent communities as it implies an inability to be one’s true self, but this perspective frames it as realistically managing the condition to live in neurotypical society. It is less about pandering to neurotypicals, but about helping one feel more comfortable.
Since working on those articles, I’ve learnt that I have ADHD and I better understand both schools of thought as a result since they overlap with how ADHDers see ourselves.
I am also more aware that shows like Extraordinary Attorney Woo are simply a conversation starter towards greater acceptance and understanding of autistic individuals. They shouldn’t be expected to represent or resonate with all autistic lives.
Such criticism can also be seen in a more positive light. That it remains impossible for a show to encompass every experience only implies that society now realises and understands that autistic people are multidimensional and unable to fit into a singular portrayal.
WHAT SHOULD NEURODIVERGENT EMPOWERMENT LOOK LIKE?
That said, while the media can reinforce narratives, it can also reframe them.
Stories of empowerment should aim to paint a nuanced, realistic picture of everyday life. It requires validating the less palatable aspects of autism, such as obtrusive mannerisms or tactless honesty, while showcasing its gifts.
The same goes for covering ADHD and other neurodevelopmental conditions.
For instance, with ADHD, stereotypes persist of ADHDers being academically poor, overly impulsive, or easily distracted.
While this superficial understanding isn’t entirely baseless, seemingly progressive narratives tend to overcompensate by painting a rosy picture of ADHD’s strengths – endless energy, perseverance, creativity, sense of humour and multitasking, to name a few.
Not everyone with ADHD sees their condition with such positivity. Calling the characteristics of ADHD “superpowers” does not erase the struggles.
It is tempting to frame neurodivergent individuals as savants or gifted rebels, but placing us on a pedestal isn’t quite the acceptance we seek. It can occasionally even feel like we’re being handled with kid gloves.
Acceptance doesn’t just mean harnessing our strengths. It also requires society to acknowledge and help us navigate our weaknesses rather than reinforce our shame around them by ignoring or fixating on these weaknesses.
After all, even neurotypicals know this: True empowerment comes from being seen for who we are, not for what others want to see.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist with CNA.