Mom and daughter play

Mom and daughter play

Parents may have already suspected this but a recent British study confirms people with autistic characteristics are often more creatively advanced than their peers. The study involved adults taking online tests but creativity emerges early. Parents and educators alike often see creative advancement in autistic children of every age.

Dr. Catherine Best, a health researcher at Scotland’s University of Stirling, worked with researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norfolk, England, to compare test-taking results of 312 adults who volunteered for the study involving divergent and creative thinking. The study participants were recruited at websites and social media outlets devoted to the autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and relatives of autistic people.

Divergent thinking occurs when someone is looking for an alternative, or unique, solution to a problem. The research team asked the volunteers for as many alternative ways to use a brick or a paper clip, for example, as could be imagined. All the volunteers’ solutions were rated for elaborateness, quantity, and unusualness.

Before beginning the creative elements of the study, each volunteer responded to a questionnaire that measures autistic traits. Most of the study participants (237) had never been diagnosed with ASD but 75 had been.

Best acknowledges “there is a lot of variation among people with autism,” including people who can function independently at a high level and those who cannot. She further acknowledges that advanced creativity is not a guaranteed element of an autism diagnosis.

Previous studies indicate divergent problem-solving follows simple, undemanding paths to produce results. An example is the use of word association to produce quick obvious answers before creative thinking is fully employed to find a unique solution. Best’s study indicates people with autistic traits tend to jump straight into creative thinking without wading first through the divergent thinking process.

Her study identified a higher degree of creative thinking in study participants who exhibited the greater number of autistic traits on the ASD test. Those who produced four or more unusual solutions had the greater number of autistic characteristics.

Dr. Martin Doherty, a co-author of the study affiliated with the UEA School of Psychology, expressed surprise at his team’s findings. "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.”

Doherty also said, “The associative or memory-based route to being able to think of different ideas is impaired (in patients with ASD), whereas the specific ability to produce unusual responses is relatively unimpaired or superior."

The research highlights one way the autistic mind processes problems and expresses creativity. Its findings will surely be beneficial when working with autistic people of every age. The research contributes to greater understanding of creative thought processing in the general population, too.


  1. "Research discovers link between autism and creativity." University of Stirling. University of Stirling, 14 Aug. 2015.  Web. 8 Sept. 2015.
  2. Best, Catherine, Shruti Arora, Fiona Porter, and Martin Doherty. "The Relationship Between Subthreshold Autistic Traits, Ambiguous Figure Perception and Divergent Thinking." Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2015). Springer Link. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.