Psychologists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and University of Stirling have discovered that individuals expressing highly autistic traits tend to be more creative. The research observed people who were not necessarily diagnosed with autism, but exhibited high levels of behavioral and thinking patterns associated with the disorder. The findings corroborate previous researches suggesting the advantages of having certain traits linked to autism, but below the threshold of being diagnosed with the condition.

The Study: Finding A Link Between Autism And Creativity

The researchers analyzed data collected from 312 individuals, recruited via social media and websites which was meant for people and families suffering from Autistic Spectrum Disorder – 75 percent of the study participants were diagnosed with the latter. They were asked to complete an anonymous online questionnaire used to measure autistic traits, and were also asked to participate in various creativity tests.

To assess their divergent patterns of thinking, participants were asked to suggest as many alternative uses for a paper clip or a brick as they could come up with. The responses were rated in terms of quality, uniqueness and elaborateness. Unique and creative responses for a paper clip included: weight on a paper airplane, wire to support cut flowers, counter/token for a game. Common uses were: to clean small grooves, make jewelry.

The participants were also asked to interpret four abstract drawings, coming up with as many explanations as they could, within a minute. Greater number of ideas indicated a lower level of autistic traits.

Interpreting The Findings

As reported in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, individuals with autistic traits produced fewer alternative solutions and interpretations. However, the responses they gave were more unique and creative.

Co-author Dr Martin Doherty from UEA’s School of Psychology explained that autistic traits led to a decrease in quantity but increase in quality of creative ideas. Generally thought of being rigid in their thoughts, these findings were rare and surprising. “This difference may have positive implications for creative problem solving”.

While coming up with answers or interpretations, most people use simple strategies first, such as word association, to come with obvious solutions. Then, higher cognitive skills are used to produce more creative answers. These findings suggest that people with highly autistic traits skip the first step and move directly to cognitively demanding strategies.

“The associative or memory-based route of thinking about various ideas is impaired, while the precise ability to generate unusual responses is comparatively advanced,” stated Dr Doherty.

Exciting Prospects: Autism Patients Are Usually Creative

Dr Doherty added that these findings addressed an obvious paradox – a condition generally known to restrict behavior and thinking, instead makes them more creative and superior in cognition. This could help researchers evaluate the relationship between highly autistic traits and problem solving in greater detail.

However, Dr Catherine Best, Health Researcher at the University of Stirling, pointed out that a lot of variation exists between autistic individuals. Some may function aptly, whereas others struggle with functioning independently. “Similarly, not all individuals diagnosed with the disorder, or having autistic traits, will display strengths in creative problem solving. Trying to comprehend this discrepancy will be a vital aspect in understanding autism and its impact on people’s lives,” stated Dr Best.