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."
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."The article, titled "The Relationship Between Subthreshold Autistic Traits, Ambiguous Figure Perception and Divergent Thinking," appears in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. The abstract:
This research investigates the paradox of creativity in autism. That is, whether people with subclinical autistic traits have cognitive styles conducive to creativity or whether they are disadvantaged by the implied cognitive and behavioural rigidity of the autism phenotype. The relationship between divergent thinking (a cognitive component of creativity), perception of ambiguous figures, and self-reported autistic traits was evaluated in 312 individuals in a non-clinical sample. High levels of autistic traits were significantly associated with lower fluency scores on the divergent thinking tasks. However autistic traits were associated with high numbers of unusual responses on the divergent thinking tasks. Generation of novel ideas is a prerequisite for creative problem solving and may be an adaptive advantage associated with autistic traits.