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08/18/2015 03:28 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2015

Psychologists Dig Into Link Between Autism And Creativity

People with autistic traits may have fewer -- but more original -- creative ideas.
Alma Haser via Getty Images

A fascinating paradox lies at the heart of autism: While rigid thinking is considered a key aspect of the condition, many people with autism display exceptional creativity.  

Now, a study published last week in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders offers an explanation for this seeming contradiction, finding a correlation between autistic traits and an unusual creative-thinking process. 

"People with high autistic traits seem more likely to 'think outside the box,'" Dr. Martin Doherty, a psychologist at England's University of East Anglia and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. 

Conducted by psychologists from East Anglia and University of Stirling in Scotland, the research shows that while most people engage in a fairly predictable creative problem-solving process, individuals with autism circumvent these modes of thought in favor of strategies that generate fewer, but more original, ideas. 

Seeing Things In A Different Light 

The researchers recruited 312 participants for the study, 75 of whom had been diagnosed with autism, and a number of whom possessed some autistic traits but no official diagnosis.

The participants took the Alternate Uses Test, in which they were asked to think of possible uses for an everyday item like a brick or a paper clip. The test is commonly used to measure divergent thinking, a thinking style in which creative ideas are generated through the exploration of as many as possible solutions to a single problem. 

Their answers were rated based on uniqueness, elaborateness and quantity. 

In line with previous research showing that people with autism tend to score lower on tests of divergent thinking, the researchers found the participants with autism tended to come up with fewer responses. However, the responses they did come up with were considerably more unusual, and tended to bypass the most common responses to the questions (i.e., using a brick as a doorstop or a weapon). 

Why? People with autistic traits -- both those who had been diagnosed with autism and those whose traits resembled those of autism but did not warrant a diagnosis -- approached creative problems in a different way.  

"People with high autistic traits could be said to have less quantity but greater quality of creative ideas," Doherty said in a written statement. "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."

On divergent thinking tests, people without autism tend to run through ideas in a predictable fashion, based on associational thinking and memory. Individuals with autism, however, seem to jump straight to more complex cognitive strategies, completely bypassing the most common answers.

"The associative strategies that typical participants use first to generate ideas may be less available to people with high autistic traits," Doherty told HuffPost. "Instead, they go directly to other strategies, probably involving top-down executive processes -- or in other words, potentially effortful control of one's own thought processes."

Here's an example from a different test of divergent thinking: When asked to think of as many animals as possible in a short period of time, most people will start with common animals like "dog" and "cat," and then move onto farm animals, and then perhaps onto jungle animals. But a person with autism is more likely to start by naming an unusual animal, like a platypus, according to Dr. Paul Wang, head of medical research for nonprofit advocacy group Autism Speaks.

Thinking Outside The Box 

These findings challenge some traditional beliefs about the thinking styles most common in people with autism. 

"We think that the thinking is more rigid [in autism], but we're not sure," Wang, who was not involved with the study but reviewed it for HuffPost, said. "We're trying to understand in what ways that's true."

Wang and Doherty said we should think of autism in terms of differences rather than deficits. And these differences, as the study suggests, can give rise to important and unique creative insights.  

"Maybe because [individuals with autism] can have difficulty understanding what other people are thinking, they're not as susceptible to the 'group-think,' so they could come out with an off-the-wall idea," Wang said. "That different way of thinking can be valuable."

Doherty added, "We see this as a potentially positive message that parents, educators and employers should be made aware of."

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