Autistic people are more creative than you might think

Autism and ability

Why is this particularly interesting? Given the plethora of reports of autistic difficulties and deficits, I always think that research on the strengths of autism is important. But this finding is intriguing because, even when considering autistic talents and ability, it doesn’t quite fit with the stereotypical view of the mathematically minded autistic genius who lacks flexibility of thought and imagination.

Much research on autistic people recognises areas of ability in mathematics, data processing and IT where a logical, systematic method is required. Autistic people tend to be superior to non-autistic people in many tasks that require processing large amounts of information, picking out details of objects or scenes, or detecting changes in the environment. All of these require good adherence to rules, a focus on detail and a methodical approach. This seems to be at odds with how we view creativity and creative people.

Does the new study challenges this generalisation? Not quite yet. Participants were specifically asked to generate novel uses for items: the creativity was prompted, rather than spontaneous. On tests of spontaneous creativity, the level of imaginative use is lower in autistic participants. For example, this tends to be the case on diagnostic measures such as the Autism Diagnostic Observational Schedule where individuals are asked to create stories using various items, but are not given instructions about whether to use the items in their typical manner.

This can also be seen with other autistic traits. For example, when given free choice, autistic people will process the local components in preference to the global shape. Yet, when instructed to process the whole form instead, they are perfectly able to do so.

Perhaps the new research has revealed that even if imagination and creativity may be reduced in autism in some situations, when specifically asked to generate novel ideas, autistic people are even more adept than those without autism.

The authors suggest that the reason for this increased ability may be down to differences in how language is processed in the brains of autistic people. One alternative –- and more optimistic – possibility, is that autistic people might be less constrained by social norms. In non-autistic individuals, the pressures of expectation and compliance with group behaviour may get in the way of creativity, preventing some of the more unusual ideas. In addition, there is work that suggests autistic people are less influenced by their prior knowledge or experience when performing a task. Freedom from all these influences and pressures might allow more unusual ideas to form.

Busting stereotypes

When we look further, there are actually numerous examples of creativity in autism. There are many examples of great autistic artists, musicians, actors, poets and writers. In some cases this creativity seems to go hand-in-hand with the more traditional talents, leading to incredibly detailed and accurate drawings, or the ability to play a concerto after hearing it only once.

In research, as well as in society, we seem to have tunnel vision when perceiving and interpreting autistic behaviour. The recent findings, together with the many examples of creative autistic people in books, films and on the web suggest that we need to avoid getting stuck in a particular way of thinking about autism.

So let’s stereotype less, and embrace individuality, encouraging and nurturing ability even in areas that might not come naturally.

As autism activist Temple Grandin has said: “The most interesting people you’ll find are ones that don’t fit into your average cardboard box.“ Perhaps autistic people are also the ones who truly think outside the box.

The ConversationAnna RemingtonAbout the Author

Anna Remington is Lecturer in Cognitive Science at UCL Institute of Education



This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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  1. Tina Quant says:

    Not only are they creative but they are brilliant. We are parents here in Florida whose teenage Aspergers son is not able to be educated due to violations of his civil rights and educational rights. They have him and others washing jock straps and football uniforms along with detailing cars without our parental consent not following their IEP and retailiating when we speak out. We need someone to take a stand as our family has gone to Sec Arne Duncan, DOJ, DOE and still no one in media will help us if you are reading this you know and you need to have compassion as this is real and he is worthy of an education!
    The Quant Family.