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People with high levels of autistic traits are more likely to produce unusually creative ideas, according to new research.

Psychologists from the University of Stirling and the University of East Anglia (UEA) examined the relationship between autistic-like traits and creativity. While people with high autistic traits produced fewer responses when generating alternative solutions to a problem – known as “divergent thinking” – the study found 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 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.

"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 characterised as a ‘disability’ exhibit superior creative talents in some domains”, says Dr Catherine Best, Health Researcher at the University of Stirling. "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."

Problem solving

Co-author of the study, Dr Martin Doherty from UEA’s School of Psychology, says that: "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."

Data was analysed from 312 people who completed an anonymous online questionnaire to measure their autistic traits and took part in a series of creativity tests. These included providing as many alternative uses as possible for a brick or paper clip. Responses were rated for quantity, elaborateness and unusualness. People who generated four or more unusual responses were found to have higher levels of autistic traits.

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”, says 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.”

Jolanta Lasota, Chief Executive at the charity Ambitious about Autism, believes that lack of creativity is one of many autism myths. “What people with autism struggle with is fitting their feelings of sympathy and caring into everyday interactions”, she says. “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.”

The research team hope that their findings will help researchers understand more about the relationship between autistic traits and how the brain adapts to problem solving in the general population.

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