Autistic traits may be socially disabling but are also linked to original thought and creativity, research has shown.
Scientists found that when asked to provide solutions to a problem, people with autism delivered fewer of them – but were more likely to think “outside the box”.
The findings highlight an apparent paradox associated with the developmental disorder, which impairs the ability to socialise and form relationships.
Even though autism is often linked to narrow interests and a poor grasp of abstract concepts, some well known sufferers are highly creative.
They include TV garden designer Alan Gardner – aka The Autistic Gardener - British architectural artist Stephen Wiltshire, and American author and professor of animal science Temple Grandin.
Dr Martin Doherty, from the University of East Anglia, said: “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.
“This difference may have positive implications for creative problem solving.”
The creativity tests used in the research included asking the 312 participants to provide as many alternative uses they could think of for a brick or paper clip.
Volunteers were also given four abstract drawings and told to provide as many interpretations as possible for each figure in one minute.
In the first test, participants who came up with four or more unusual responses were found to have higher levels of autistic traits.
Among the creative uses for a paper clip suggested were a weight on a paper aeroplane, a wire to support cut flowers, a counter or token for gambling or playing a game, and a light duty spring.
More common alternative uses included a hook or pin, a tool for cleaning small grooves, and an item of jewellery.
Previous studies have shown that most people asked to solve problems use simple strategies, such as word association, to find obvious answers first.
Only when these sources of inspiration are exhausted do they shift up a mental gear and become creative.
The new research suggests that highly autistic people go straight for the more demanding option.
“People with autistic traits may approach creativity problems in a different way,” Dr Doherty said.
“They might 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.”
The drawing tests, which assessed abstract thinking, associated a higher number of interpretations with a lower level of autism.
Co-author Dr Catherine Best, from the University of Stirling in Scotland, said: “This is the first study to find a link between autistic traits and the creative thinking processes.
“It goes a little way towards explaining how it is that some people with what is often characterised as a ’disability’ exhibit superior creative talents in some domains.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.