Creative minds: New study challenges myth about people with autism

New research shows that people with autistic traits generate more original, creative ideas, according to scientists at the University of East Anglia and the University of Stirling.

People with autism are more likely to come up with unusually creative ideas, new research has found.

Individuals with high autistic traits offered fewer responses when producing alternative solutions to a problem – a process called “divergent thinking” – but the answers they did give were more unique and creative, according to psychologists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of Stirling.

Family members, caregivers, and friends of people on the autism spectrum have long been delighted – and sometimes frustrated – by the unique perspective of individuals with autism. However, this study, published this month in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, is the first to empirically link creative thinking to traits associated with autism.

“We speculate that it may be because they are approaching things very differently,” Catherine Best, health researcher at the University of Stirling and a co-author of the study, told The Guardian. “It goes a way towards explaining how some people with what is often characterized as a disability exhibit superior creative talents in some domains.”

The researchers analyzed data from 312 people who took an anonymous online questionnaire to measure their autistic traits and participated in a series of creative tests. Seventy-five of the participants said they had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, characterized by difficulties in social interaction and restrictive patterns of behavior and interest, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

To test participants’ divergent thinking, the researchers would ask them to provide alternative uses for a brick or a paper clip, or come up with as many interpretations of an abstract picture as they could in one minute. Those who came up with the most unusual responses in each task were also found to have higher levels of autistic traits.

The findings address how, despite living with a condition known for limiting interests and behaviors, the most well-known people with autism, such as American author and activist Temple Grandin, are also unusually creative, Martin Doherty of the UEA School of Psychology said in a statement.

“People with autistic traits may approach creativity problems in a different way,” Dr. Doherty said. “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.”

The study has been welcomed by advocates as an important step toward ending misconceptions surrounding the disorder.

“While 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,” Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of UK charity Ambitious about Autism, told The Guardian. “It is great to see research continued in this area to help dispel more autism myths.”

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