Wednesday 2 September 2015

Sub-threshold autistic traits and creativity

I was intrigued by the results reported by Catherine Best and colleagues [1] recently and the suggestion that yet another sweeping generalisation attributed to autism (or at least autistic traits) might turn out to be not as accurate or universal as we might have all been led to believe.

Based on the analysis of data from over 300 people who completed an on-line questionnaire (anonymously) measuring autistic traits, researchers reported that creative ideas as measured by a divergent thinking task might show some connection to self-reported autistic traits. Further: "autistic traits were associated with high numbers of unusual responses on the divergent thinking tasks." Ergo, thinking outside of the box may show something of a relationship to autistic traits and creativity may not be an alien concept for those on the autism spectrum (a shocker I know).

Bearing in mind headlines such as 'Scientists discover people with autism have 'fewer ideas but are more creative and think outside the box'' that don't really reflect the study design and findings in their entirety (only 75 of the study participants said they had received a diagnosis of autism), I do think that the Best study findings call for quite a bit more research inspection in this area. Previous investigations have for example, suggested that there may be quite a bit more to see when it comes to verbal creativity and [some] autism [2] bearing in mind the small participant numbers included in such trials.

Divergent thinking and it's links to creativity is not necessarily a new concept when it comes to autism despite the increasing recent popularisation of this phenomenon. Viewers in the UK might have already seen the Channel 4 series 'The Autistic Gardener' detailing how a diagnosis of autism may not be a hurdle to good design skills; also over-turning other generalisations about perceived interests and vocations for those on the autism spectrum too (see here).

Caution does need to applied to the Best findings as they stand bearing in mind the study methodology used and the application of their findings to "a non-clinical sample." As per other commentary on the paper, it is still a little unclear as to how listing alternative uses for a brick or paper clip actually translates into a real-world setting. That also aspects of creativity have been previously associated with other labels (see here) and the lack of information on study participants with some of these other aspects in mind (e.g. comorbidity), and one needs to be mindful not to push the findings beyond their original scope however desirable they may be.

Still, the study results do make for some interesting reading and reiterate that all minds potentially have something rich to offer to society. Indeed, playing to strengths is a key theme of other recent research as per the concept of 'attention to detail' and threat detection [3] for example.

Music: Daft Punk - One More Time.


[1] Best C. et al. The Relationship Between Subthreshold Autistic Traits, Ambiguous Figure Perception and Divergent Thinking. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders. 2015. August 14.

[2] Kasirer A. & Mashal N. Verbal creativity in autism: comprehension and generation of metaphoric language in high-functioning autism spectrum disorder and typical development. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Aug 11;8:615.

[3] Rusconi E. et al. XRIndex: a brief screening tool for individual differences in security threat detection in x-ray images. Front Hum Neurosci. 2015 Aug 10;9:439.

---------- Best, C., Arora, S., Porter, F., & Doherty, M. (2015). The Relationship Between Subthreshold Autistic Traits, Ambiguous Figure Perception and Divergent Thinking Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/s10803-015-2518-2

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