A look at Autism in Korean Culture–Series Review: “The Good Doctor”

While spending endless hours in the heat at the laundromat a few weeks ago, I thought I might check out another one of Joo Won’s dramas. I hated “Tomorrow’s Cantabile” but loved “Yong Pal”, and I wanted to see why this actor has a ton of fans. This one caught my eye–“The Good Doctor”. Here’s the plot from my POV: a brilliant autistic savant becomes a pediatric resident/surgeon while everyone else in the hospital throws a temper tantrum (or two, or three) trying to adjust to the fact this guy knows more than they do. The young doctor acts a little stiff and quirky towards adults while relating perfectly to kids. Finally, everyone adjusts a little bit, and the benefits are obvious.

The Viki summary flat-out enraged me–so of course I had to watch this show!

Here’s the line that got to me: “Can a man with the mental capacity of a 10-year-old carry out his work as a brilliant pediatric surgeon?” The mental capacity of a 10 year old? WTH! Yeah, then please explain how the heck did he get through university and pass his medical boards, which he seemed to do quite easily?  What they should have said was: “Can a man who appears at first glance to have the social skills of a 10 year old carry out his work as a brilliant pediatric surgeon?”

DramaFever doesn’t do TGD justice either. Check this out: “Joo Won stars as savant pediatric doctor, Park Shi On, who struggles to succeed in a competitive “adult” world where everyone is at least emotionally and mentally 20 years older than he is.” OMG. Neither one is true. He is not 20 years younger, emotionally or mentally! Autistic folks operate on logic and reason. Emotions are there, but unlike most of the rest of us (and every single character in DramaLand) you shouldn’t solely rely on them to make important decisions. That takes a certain level of maturity IMHO. And I think we can all agree that emotional and mental maturity is certainly lacking in DramaLand, especially amongst the male population!

Autism is something Shamrockmom knows a lot about. In fact, I have 23 years of first-hand experience dealing with autism. My oldest son wasn’t officially diagnosed until age 15, but I knew from day 1–this was not an ordinary child. I understand now that I have lots of other family members with autistic traits, including myself. My son just happened to get all of them. He also has some developmental delays, which are pretty typical for his condition. The key word is delay–it has taken him longer to get to every life milestone; from sitting up, walking, and talking to being able to get a driver’s license and hold down a job. It’s not impossible–he’s simply on his own timetable. I’ve never considered autism a ‘handicap’ or a ‘disability’ for my son. It’s simply a different way of processing incoming information. I agree that communication can be a big issue. I’ve learned to be specific, direct and clear when I have to get a point across. It’s not that difficult once you get the hang of it. I have learned that he can be brutally truthful at times, and say things that sound awful, but are really true. I’ve always expected that he would become a fully functioning adult. He currently has a nearly full time job and a full class load at the local college, even though his High School counselors told me he would never be able to do either one, let alone doing them both at the same time. Yes, I laughed in their faces when they told me that! Just like in “Good Doctor”, the bar is set to the lowest level. Positive expectations are non-existent, and prevailing attitudes squash the hopes and dreams of those who are labeled as autistic.

After my son started public high school, we were referred to a support group to ‘help’ us deal with the diagnosis. It took my son and I about 2 meetings to realize that both the kids and the adults in this group were a mess, and they needed help! Most of the parents were medicating their kids (and themselves) heavily. Whoa. The majority of the other kids were functioning at a lower level than my son, except for one. The ‘savant’ type of autism is not at all common, but I had the privilege of meeting a young man who was a real-life savant in this group. His area of expertise: Robots. More on that later.

Park Shi On (Joo Won) has what I think is a sadly typical childhood for someone with autism. His parents are blindsided; unable to understand and deal with his autism. They are totally clueless about how to help him. I don’t think they got any support from any medical personnel, or a psychologist, or a developmental specialist either. I fully understand their frustrations with the medical community on this subject. I didn’t get any help either back then. I think it would be different if he had been born in 2015.

Side note: I was told when my son started physical therapy at 15 months that the divorce rate for families who have a child with a physical or mental disability is 75% within the first five years of the diagnosis. Our family was definitely in that 75%. Was that the only reason I ended up divorced and with all three kids? Heck no….but the stresses involved were substantial, and certainly didn’t help our situation.

PSO’s father manifests that frustration into severe physical and verbal violence, and eventually bails out on his family–another all too common way that parents of a child with any kind of disability react, along with the misuse of drugs and alcohol. PSO’s mother is weak and fearful, and bails out too, leaving him an orphan after his older brother (and his only defender) dies in an accident. Luckily for PSO, a kind local doctor takes him in, and realizes the potential of the boy who can draw complicated medical book illustrations from memory. PSO gets through med school and passes his boards–but there’s a hitch. TPTB don’t want to give a ‘handicapped’ person a medical license. *headdesk* So PSO has to jump another hurdle, and put in some time at a hospital to have the doctors there assess his competence.

It’s not any better for PSO in the hospital than on the streets, as the head pediatric surgeon Kim Do Han (Joo Sang Wook) is pretty much an A-hole and a bully from start to finish in this show. Not until I started watching “She Was Pretty” have I been so frustrated with a character more than this guy! (More on “SWP” later!) Determined to prove that PSO doesn’t belong in the pediatric ward aka his Kingdom, he treats PSO like dirt, constantly disses him in front of everyone else, gives him impossible assignments (which PSO memorizes readily!) and won’t let him do anything that a teenage candy-striper volunteer couldn’t do. Turns out KDH had a younger brother with a mental impairment of some sort, and when he pushed his lil ‘bro to ride the bus by himself, the kid was killed in a traffic accident. Of course, he blames himself! A tragedy, but in DramaLand–not unexpected. Pedestrian death rates are astronomical!

Most of the other residents treat PSO poorly too, with the notable exception of Han Ji Wook (Kim Young Kwang, currently in “D-Day” and showing 100% improvement in his acting since this show was broadcast!) who has a much more open mind and positive attitude toward PSO. I really liked the side story and relationship he had with the older sister who worked as a “hostess” to pay for her younger sister’s treatment. HJW was a true gentleman, patient and understanding. I was extremely pleased to see them together at the end of the show.

The second year resident, and eventual love interest of Park Shi On is Cha Yoon Seo (Moon Chae Won). She also seems to keep an open mind toward PSO, and begins to realize that this guy is a huge asset to the Pediatric department. I was initially confused and thought she had feelings for the jerky head doc KDH, but she is too smart to get involved with that guy. He belongs to the plastic perfect daughter of the hospital administrator. Frankly, those two self centered and narcissistic brats deserve each other!

There’s an irrelevant and draggy subplot involving taking the hospital over and making it a for-profit deal. I should have FF’d through a lot of it, but I didn’t. My bad.

I was interested to see how the relationship was going to proceed between CYS and PSO, and I thought the show handled it pretty realistically. Initially, CYS was worried about how others would react, and so was PSO. He even considered breaking up with her because he thought it would be too burdensome for her to have a boyfriend like him. The stunned reactions of their peers when she announced they were dating was really sad. I was not surprised to see the gossip mill start to grind them up, and I liked how CYS took immediate action to put a stop to it. PSO sat around and brooded about it, and that’s not good. He should have spoken up right away, and taken a strong stand–although it would have been undoubtedly difficult for him.

Based on what I know of autism, I wish I could have taken CYS out for a Vietnamese coffee and told her that finding a dude like PSO was like finding a diamond ring on the street. First of all, he’ll never ever cheat on her. Ever. It would not even occur to him. He will be loyal to her forever. She might not get flowery words from him all the time, and he will have to put reminders of her birthday and their anniversary in his phone calendar. But hey, he told her he loves her! Once is plenty, because that fact doesn’t change. Why would she need to hear the same redundant piece of information day after day?! PSO will leave for work every day at the same time, and he will be home at the same time, every night. He’s a creature of habit. He wants the same food, cooked the same way–so he won’t balk and want her to cook exotic meals for him. He will be financially responsible, and he won’t go out and get drunk or gamble because those things are not logical. He will be on time, and he will tend to not make messes, so she won’t have to pick up after him. Last minute plans will frustrate him immensely, and surprises are a no-go either. She will need to clearly communicate to him what her needs are, both physical and emotional. If CYS can give him some space to be by himself from time to time so he can mentally rest and recharge his internal ‘batteries’, they’ll be just fine. He’ll never hit her or their children, and he will teach them non-violent ways to deal with bullies–and also when it’s perfectly appropriate to throw a punch or two!

Another idea put forth in this show that was surprising is that PSO could be “cured” of his autistic traits. Wow. I wouldn’t want this guy to be cured. He’s got an invaluable and amazing gift. Suppressing that is detrimental to everyone, especially the children that could benefit from his surgical skills. I really disliked the part at the end of the show where KDH pronounced PSO “cured” of his autism. No sir–you have it backward. You were ‘cured’ of thinking that everything has to be done according to your perception of normal.

Joo Won absolutely nails this character; I am only surprised he didn’t win more awards. The fidgety, nervous, hand wringing gestures, as well as his pacing, his posture, and his speech pattern were representative of many autistics. JW’s portrayal of PSO is really the main reason to sit through the 20 episodes of medical melodrama that comprises this show. I can bet JW was totally exhausted at the end. He gave the character of PSO a 100% effort. I know TGD won a lot of awards–but I am not sure this show would be appealing to a broad range of viewers. It’s given me a lot to think about. I enjoyed watching this show and comparing PSO’s experiences to my son’s experiences, as well as getting a read for how a different culture reacts to autism. If you know someone who is autistic, or work with autistic kids or adults, I would highly recommend this show. The ending is pretty good as Kdrama endings go, and I felt hopeful that PSO and CYS would continue dating and eventually get married. I think they would work well together as a couple.

Back to the RL story of my son’s friend–the kid who was obsessed with robots. What a hoot this kid was, with his sandy ‘fro “mad professor” hairstyle from the ’70’s! He turned every conversation around him into how robots could make things better or more efficient. His very nice parents constantly apologized for his behavior, but I found him fascinating. I liked listening to him talk, and I learned a lot about robotics! At one of the last parent meetings my son and I attended, I gave his mom a flyer for a Robotics seminar at a local University. She laughed and said that it was a given that he was going to attend.

What happened next was no laughing matter. This young man asked the professors loads of questions at the seminar, and impressed them so much that at the end of the day, two of the professors came up to his parents and said,” Your son is really smart. We need him down here.” The parents thanked them, and said they were considering this university for him when he finished high school in about three years. “No, you don’t understand. We want him down here right now!” was the reply. So….he took a test, got his HS diploma at 16, and got some kind of special dispensation to start at the University when he should have started his junior year at high school! Financial aid was arranged, and off he went! For the first quarter, his parents drove him back and forth to school, but that played havoc with their jobs. He begged his parents to let him live at the dorm like a regular college student. Fearful that their very young, gentle and innocent son would move into a newer version of “Animal House” and be debauched, they initially balked. But after meeting his roommates and friends on campus, they realized he was in the company of a whole bunch of dudes just like him. A hot Friday night meant videogames till 1am and lots of Mountain Dew and chocolate chip cookies! I see this guy’s mom around town every once in a while; he’s in a doctorate program now at the ripe old age of 24, inventing new medical robotics to assist in surgeries. What a blessing! He was so lucky that his parents were supportive, and took a chance by removing him from the high school where he was stunted, and sending him to the university where he could flourish. He had great mentors at the university, just like PSO had a wonderful mentor in the show. Another bonus–no one considered his behavior unusual or perplexing in any way at the university. He was accepted for who he was–a super smart guy who had the ability to build and program machines in new and creative ways.

PSO was given a chance too in this show, although it was not without a few bumps along the way. How many autistic kids/young adults are left in the dust, working at a job far below their capacity or not at all? I hope that this show started a dialogue in Korea (well known for its rigid educational system) that outside the box thinking is not dangerous. It needs to be seen as innovative and respectable. It’s the path into a better future.

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3 thoughts on “A look at Autism in Korean Culture–Series Review: “The Good Doctor”

  1. Hello there, you got a lovely blog. Thank you for visiting my site and it’s cool to see that there are like minded bloggers out there. I barely started out with this blogging business so I am rather new at this, although, I’m still learning and what not. I’ve been wanting to befriend fellow bloggers that like to write about Korean dramas and it would be nice if we can chit chat about. Would that be okay? I want to make friends in the blogging world, well, with the ones that write about the similar things anyways.

    Sincerely, girlgenius or Jen.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I wasn’t sure if I should message you or not but I felt like it’s good to communicate with like minded folks so thats why I decided say hello…..Thanks for liking my Yongpal post. I put a lot of thought on to that particular review….Jo Hyun Jae really stood out like a sore thumb…I was very surprised that he can play such a scary villain…..

        So is your favorite Korean actor Jo Hyun Jae? As you could probably tell mine is Yoo Seung Ho, although, I do like Jo Hyun Jae a lot…

        Liked by 1 person

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