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Research discovers link between autism and creativity

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Dr Catherine Best, Health Researcher at the University of Stirling.

People with high levels of autistic traits are more likely to produce unusually creative ideas, according to new research by the University of Stirling, in partnership with the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Psychologists from the Universities 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 today (Friday 14 August) 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.

Dr Catherine Best, Health Researcher at the University of Stirling, said: "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.

"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."

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

Dr Doherty said: "People with autistic traits may approach creativity problems in a different way. 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."

The findings could 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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Notes for editors
Background information
  • A copy of the paper 'The relationship between subthreshold autistic traits, ambiguous figure perception and divergent thinking' can be emailed on request.
  • Study participants were recruited through social media and websites aimed at people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder and their relatives. Seventy-five of the participants said they had received a diagnosis of an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
  • Some of the more creative uses given for a paper clip were: as a weight on a paper airplane; as wire to support cut flowers; counter/token for game/gambling; as a light duty spring. Common ones included: hook; pin; to clean small grooves; make jewellery.
  • Participants were also shown four abstract drawings and asked to provide as many interpretations as they could for each figure in one minute. The higher the number of ideas produced, the lower the participant’s level of autistic traits tended to be.
  • Current Channel 4 television series The Autistic Gardener illustrates the unique contribution someone with autism can make to a creative activity such as garden design.


University of Stirling

The University of Stirling is ranked fifth in Scotland and 40th in the UK for research intensity in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Stirling is committed to carrying out research which has a positive impact on communities across the globe – addressing real issues, providing solutions and helping to shape society. Interdisciplinary in its approach, Stirling’s research informs its teaching curriculum and facilitates opportunities for knowledge exchange and collaboration between staff, students, industry partners and the wider community. At almost 50-years-young, Stirling retains a pioneering spirit and a passion for innovation. Its scenic central Scotland campus – complete with a loch, castle and golf course – is home to more than 11,000 students and 1400 staff representing 115 nationalities. This includes an ever-expanding base for postgraduate study.

University of East Anglia

The University of East Anglia’s School of Psychology is an internationally renowned academic department dedicated to research and teaching. Strengths across a range of psychology areas include language and cognitive processes; perception (vision and action); decision-making and behavioural economics; substance misuse; neuroscience; social psychology; personality and individual differences; psychosocial and developmental perspectives on children, families and relationships and parenting. Ranked within the top 15 psychology departments in the UK (Guardian League Table 2015), the School’s teaching also ranked 3rd in the National Student Survey (2014) receiving a 97% satisfaction score with an overall satisfaction rating of 93%.The School enjoyed success in the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014); all research submitted was judged to be of international quality, with over 80% rated as “world leading” or “Internationally excellent”.

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