In addition to impaired social and communication skills, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is often characterized by rigid thinking—lacking imagination when it comes to thinking ahead or considering alternative situations. So it may seem paradoxical that a recent study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that people diagnosed with ASD exhibit higher levels of creative thinking than those who are not diagnosed with ASD. The British researchers evaluated 312 adults in “divergent thinking” (the ability to think creatively) tasks, one of which was to come up with as many alternative uses as possible for either a brick or a paper clip. The average age of participants was in the mid-30s. Using survey responses and self-disclosure of an ASD diagnosis from participants, the researchers discovered that those without ASD gave a higher number of creative answers, but those with ASD excelled at giving less predictable, more original answers—even if there were fewer responses.
In the past those with ASD have not scored high on divergent thinking tasks; however, previous studies only focused on the fluency or quantity of responses rather than uniqueness and originality. The lead researcher of the study, Dr. Martin Doherty, recently told the Huffington Post, “People with high autistic traits seem more likely to ‘think outside the box.’”
This discovery, though, does not seem to provide an answer for how those with ASD can be both rigid and outside of the box thinkers. While the researchers have not found a definite answer for why this paradox exists, the study has led them to a theory. Participants without ASD tend to rely on memory and associational thinking in the divergent thinking tests. This causes them to come up with predictable ideas, like using the brick as a weapon or the paperclip as a bookmark. The participants with ASD, on the other hand, did not come up with these common answers. Instead, those with ASD provided more complex and unusual responses. According to the study, the reason for this may be because “the associative or memory based route to divergent thinking fluency is impaired in [Autism Spectrum Disorder].” In other words, those with ASD cannot readily use association and memory to come up with responses so they must find another, less usual route, which results in a more creative answer.
Often the different ways in which those with ASD experience the world has been viewed as a deficit. Those individuals lack typical functions. However, after this study, the researchers believe “that autism cannot be explained by a deficit-only model.” Creative thinking is an ability that is highly valued not just in the arts, but in the workplace as well. A recent article in the Washington Post about this study pointed to the high number of people with ASD making waves with their creativity in Silicon Valley. And Doherty told the Huffington Post, “We see this as a potentially positive message that parents, educators, and employers should be made aware of.” So perhaps this study and ones like it can pave the way for a more positive view of autism in the future.
If you would like more information about the ASD-creativity connection, feel free to contact Dr. Foster by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.