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Creativity and Autism: Are People with Autism More Creative?

In looking at the cultural impact of autism, one constant theme has been that individuals with autism display a unique relationship with creative expression.

In looking at the science, it becomes clear that the autistic brain is a highly active organ, one that might be far more hypersensitive and creative than neurotypical brains. And this shows in the many online and real life artistic events, such as art exhibits, theater productions, and plays and novels, that exist to provide a much needed creative outlet.

However, the mainstream perception of autism tends to be a predominantly negative one, and in focusing on the challenges of the condition, journalists sometimes elide over the creative potential seemingly inherent in autism.

Hold on a second. It appears “seemingly’ might no longer apply.

A new study released last week is putting forth concrete evidence behind the hypothesis that individuals with high levels of autism might be more predisposed to producing truly original and creative ideas.

“It’s important to recognize the strengths of people with autism spectrum disorders, as well as their difficulties,” stated Dr. Martin Doherty, a senior lecturer in psychology with the University of East Anglia in the U.K. and an author on the new study. “Highly unusual creative problem solving appears to be another strength that parents, educators and employers should be aware of.”

In the study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, roughly 300 adult men and women took an online questionnaire that measured autism-like traits, although it should be noted that only one-fourth of the adults had actually been diagnosed with autism. Each participant engaged in a series of tests designed to measure creative thinking.

In one test, participants were given a minute to list as many alternate uses for a brick or paper clip as they could. They were rated on how many uses they came up with, as well as how unusual and elaborate their answers were. Alternate uses for the objects were considered unusual if they were given by less than 5 percent of the respondents.

Respondents who provided four or more unusual answers were generally found to have higher levels of traits associated with autism, suggesting there is a link between autism (or, at least many of the traits associated with autism) and creative thinking.

A second test challenged the participants to come up with as many interpretations as possible when showed four abstract paintings within one minute. Although those respondents with higher levels of autism tended to produce less interpretations, theirs were far more unique and unusual, further drawing a link between creative thinking.

In attempting to explain individuals with autism might be better suited to creative thought, Doherty stated, “One way to describe it is that people with higher levels of autistic traits are skipping the obvious answers and going straight to the more unusual ideas. Typical participants may be using free associations strategies to come up with the first few ideas. Research suggests that people with autism are poor at this kind of processing, [but our study] suggests that people with high autistic traits are not poor at the strategies that lead to unusual ideas.”

While it remains to be seen what, if any, efforts will be made to capitalize upon this research, it certainly goes a long way to better understanding how individuals with autism relate to culture and creative thought, and that they each possess a truly singular point of view.