autismPeople with high levels of autistic traits are more likely to produce unusually creative ideas to solve problems, new research has found.

Psychologists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and University of Stirling examined the relationship between autistic-like traits and creativity. While they found that people with high autistic traits produced fewer responses when generating alternative solutions to a problem – known as ‘divergent thinking’ – the responses they did produce were more original and creative. This is the first study to find a link between autistic traits and the creative thinking processes.

The research, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, looked at people who may not have a diagnosis of autism but have high levels of behaviours and thought processes typically associated with the condition. This builds on previous research suggesting there may be advantages to having some traits associated with autism without necessarily meeting criteria for diagnosis. 

Co-author of the study Dr Martin Doherty, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said: “People with high autistic traits could be said to have less quantity but greater quality of creative ideas. They are typically considered to be more rigid in their thinking, so the fact that the ideas they have are more unusual or rare is surprising. This difference may have positive implications for creative problem solving.”

Previous studies using the same tasks have found most people use simple undemanding strategies, for example word association, to produce the obvious answers first. Then, they move on to more cognitively demanding strategies and their answers become more creative. The new research suggests that people with high autistic traits go straight to these more difficult strategies.  

“People with autistic traits may approach creativity problems in a different way,” said Dr Doherty. “They might not run through things in the same way as someone without these traits would to get the typical ideas, but go directly to less common ones. In other words, the associative or memory-based route to being able to think of different ideas is impaired, whereas the specific ability to produce unusual responses is relatively unimpaired or superior.”

Dr Doherty said the finding addressed an apparent paradox – that in a condition characterised by restricted behaviour and interests, some of the best known people with autism, such as British architectural artist Stephen Wiltshire and American author and activist Temple Grandin, seem to be unusually creative. The Channel 4 television series The Autistic Gardener also illustrates the contribution someone with autism can make to a creative activity such as garden design.

Dr Catherine Best, health researcher at the University of Stirling, added: “It should be noted that there is a lot of variation among people with autism. There can be people whose ability to function independently is greatly impaired and other people who are much less affected. Similarly not all individuals with the disorder, or the traits associated with it, will exhibit strengths in creative problem solving. Trying to understand this variation will be a key part of understanding autism and the impact it has on people’s lives.”

Creative tests

The researchers analysed data from 312 people who completed an anonymous online questionnaire to measure their autistic traits and took part in a series of creativity tests – 75 of these had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Participants were recruited through social media and websites aimed at people with autistic spectrum disorder and their relatives. 

To test their divergent thinking participants were asked to provide as many alternative uses as they could for a brick or a paper clip. Their responses were then rated for quantity, elaborateness and unusualness. People who generated four or more unusual responses in the task were found to have higher levels of autistic traits.

Some of the more creative uses given for a paper clip were: as a weight on a paper airplane, as wire to support cut flowers, counter/token for game/gambling, as a light duty spring. Common ones included: hook, pin, to clean small grooves, make jewellery.

Participants were also shown four abstract drawings and asked to provide as many interpretations as they could for each figure in one minute. The higher the number of ideas produced, the lower the participant’s level of autistic traits tended to be.

Welcome myth-busting

Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of charity Ambitious about Autism, welcomed the findings of the research. “There are many misconceptions and myths about autism, the biggest one including being anti-social and a lack of empathy,” she said. “However, what people with autism struggle with is fitting their feelings of sympathy and caring into everyday interactions.  

“In this case, whilst it is true that some people with autism can have very specific interests and may struggle with abstract concepts, this research helps to highlight the fact that seeing the world in a different way can be a positive trait, too. We find time and again that many of our pupils in our TreeHouse School and Ambitious College are very creative, whether that be through art, music, film or photography. It is great to see research continued in this area to help dispel more autism myths.”