People with high levels of autistic traits are more likely to produce unusually creative ideas, finds a first-of-its-kind study.
While they found that people with high autistic traits produced fewer responses when generating alternative solutions to a problem – known as “divergent thinking” – the responses they did produce were more original and creative.
“People with high autistic traits could be said to have less quantity but greater quality of creative ideas,” said study co-author Dr Martin Doherty from Norfolk-based University of East Anglia’s school of psychology.
Autism is a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterised by great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with others.
These people 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,” Dr Doherty added.
It is the first study to find a link between autistic traits and the creative thinking processes.
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 behaviour 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.
The researchers analysed data from 312 people who completed an anonymous online questionnaire to measure their autistic traits and took part in a series of creativity tests.
The findings showed that people with autistic traits may approach creativity problems in a different way.
They may 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,” Dr Doherty explained.
Some of the best known people with autism, such as British architectural artist Stephen Wiltshire and American author and activist Temple Grandin, seem to be unusually creative.
The finding could help researchers understand more about the relationship between autistic traits and how the brain adapts to problem solving in the general population.