Autism research tends to focus on the negative traits associated with the disorder, such as social and language difficulties, and what they portend for children.
But a preliminary new study released Friday highlights a potential upside, concluding that people with high levels of autistic traits may be more likely to produce truly original, creative ideas.
"It's important to recognize the strengths of people with autism spectrum disorders, as well as their difficulties," Dr. Martin Doherty, a senior lecturer in psychology with the University of East Anglia in the U.K. and an author on the new study told The Huffington Post. "Highly unusual creative problem solving appears to be another strength that parents, educators and employers should be aware of."
In the study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, roughly 300 adult men and women took an online questionnaire that measured autism-like traits. (Notably, only one quarter of the respondents had ever received an actual diagnosis of autism.)
They then engaged in a series of tests designed to measure creative thinking.
In one test, participants were given a minute to list as many alternate uses for a brick or paper clip as they could. They were rated on how many uses they came up with, as well as how unusual and elaborate their answers were. Alternate uses for the objects were considered unusual if they were given by less than 5 percent of the respondents.
Respondents who provided four or more unusual answers were generally found to have higher levels of traits associated with autism, suggesting there is a link between autism (or, at least many of the traits associated with autism) and creative thinking.
In a second test, participants were shown four abstract drawings and asked to come up with as many interpretations as they could in one minute. Respondents with more autistic traits tended to come up with fewer interpretations, though again, the interpretations they provided were less common.
It is not yet clear why people with autistic-like traits may excel at out-of-the-box thinking, though Doherty hopes to address that question in subsequent research.
"One way to describe it is that people with higher levels of autistic traits are skipping the obvious answers and going straight to the more unusual ideas," he hypothesized. "'Typical' participants may be using free associations strategies to come up with the first few ideas. Research suggests that people with autism are poor at this kind of processing, [but our study] suggests that people with high autistic traits are not poor at the strategies that lead to unusual ideas."
However, Dr. Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University and a Chicago-based clinical psychologist cautioned that it is unclear whether the participants' unusual interpretations lead to creativity that provides any real-world advantages, or if they simply reflect an idiosyncratic way of looking at objects and situations. Meyers, who did not work on the study, also emphasized the importance of remembering the majority of the participants had not received a formal autism diagnosis.
"It isn't clear exactly how well these results map on to real-world situations that people with autism spectrum disorders encounter in their lives," he said. "However, it sends an important message -- differences are not necessarily disabilities or disadvantages. Sometimes people need to view [them] with a wider lens to fully recognize and cultivate potential."
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