The Conundrum

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a condition that impairs an individual’s ability to comprehend social cues and language skills. It is a neurological disorder that varies in severity from one person to the next. While one person who is diagnosed with autism could live life independently, another might require significant support.

Those on the “spectrum” have difficulty connecting with others. They often find themselves alienated from other people and the environment around them. This impaired development begins from an early age when they fail to learn and internalize core developmental traits, resulting in stunted growth throughout their lifetime.

While it is clear that those with autism are “wired” to see the world from a different perspective, studies have shown that they can excel in areas of the arts, math, memory, and other creative projects. What’s more, autism is also associated with close attention to detail, exclusive focus, and the recognition of patterns.

So, on the one end autism seems to be a liability, while on the other hand, it seems to be an asset. How do we make sense out of this apparent dichotomy?

A Landmark Study

Psychologists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the 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.

The research, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, looked at people who may not have a diagnosis of autism but who have high levels of behaviors and thought processes typically associated with the condition.

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 the 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.”

Dr. Catherine Best, Health Researcher at the University of Stirling, added, “This is the first study to find a link between autistic traits and the creative thinking processes. It goes a little way towards explaining how it is that some people with what is often characterized as a ‘disability’ exhibit superior creative talents in some domains.”

The researchers analyzed data from over 300 people who completed an anonymous online questionnaire to measure their autistic traits and took part in a series of creativity tests. Seventy-five of the participants said they had received a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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. The authors found that those with higher levels of autistic traits made fewer suggestions than those with lower levels.

Surprisingly, however, the suggestions from those with higher levels of autism traits were more original. The study’s researchers concluded that being on the autism spectrum is associated with being able to generate more creative suggestions.

Dr. Doherty adds, “It’s important to recognize the strengths of those with autism, as well as their difficulties. Highly unusual creative problem solving appears to be another strength that parents, educators, and employers should be aware of.”

Making Sense of it All: 3 Key Takeaways

First of all, “People with autistic traits may approach creativity problems differently,” 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.”

Second, research shows that people with autism have trouble interpreting their experiences within context, whereas most of us habitually identify objects by their relationship to other elements of a situation.

For example, we might distinguish between a salt and sugar shaker by the presence or absence of a pepper shaker or a pot of coffee. So it should not be surprising that when autistic people are shown images, they can visualize contexts that are not usually associated with those objects.

And finally, the authors suggest that “perhaps autistic people might be less constrained by social norms. Bypassing socially ingrained responses opens up more paths to thinking ‘out of the box’.”

In non-autistic individuals, the pressures of expectation and compliance with group behavior may block creativity, eliminating some of the more unusual ideas. On the other hand, those on the spectrum are liberated from these influences and pressures and thus more open to being creative.

A New Perspective

Because those with ASD are wired to “think differently,” they have been integral to critical change throughout history. Although some people perceive autism as a challenge, others use their unique minds and creativity to an advantage.

Apple’s iconic Think Different ad campaign over 20 years ago challenged the status quo and celebrated those individuals who, through sheer defiance, innovation, and creativity, changed our world for the better.

The campaign’s film featured 17 influential individuals. Of those, 13 were either diagnosed or suspected to be/have been on the autism spectrum.

That full list includes Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Branson, John Lennon, Buckminster Fuller, Thomas Edison, Muhammad Ali, Ted Turner, Maria Callas, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Martha Graham, Jim Henson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Pablo Picasso, and Steve Jobs. Only MLK, Branson, Ali, Callas, and Graham appear not to have been on the spectrum.

Ken Segall, creative director of the campaign remarked, “The ability to think creatively is one of the great catalysts of civilization. So, the logic seemed natural: Let’s acknowledge the most remarkable people — past and present — who ‘change things’ and ‘push the human race forward’.”

What’s important to remember is that people with ASD have differences rather than deficits. As mentioned above, the It cresearch shows that many on the spectrum have an ability, and even affinity, to create unique ideas and solutions. The creative industries have embraced this value for years because they understand the value of creativity.

Unfortunately, in both research as well as in society, we have tunnel vision when experiencing and interpreting autistic behavior. The recent findings, together with the many examples of creative autistic people in books, films, and on the web suggest that, when we think about autism, we need to “think out of the box!”