Autism and Creativity

A recent study published in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities found a strong link between autism and creativity.  Apparently people with more autistic traits, when asked to name as many uses as they can for a common object such as a paper clip, come up with fewer suggestions, but the suggestions they offer are more unusual than those of their neurotypical counterparts. They exhibit more “divergent thinking.” My reaction? It’s about time someone acknowledged this gift.

The finding surprises most people, because most people associate autism with rigid thinking, restricted interests, and a literal interpretation of speech and behavior. How could a person with these traits possibly be creative? I think the answer has to do with how we measure creativity, and I’m pleased that this study is trying a new approach.

My daughter Sam forced me to start rethinking creativity years ago when I realized that she could envision things that I would never, literally, imagine. This blog post is about her and her art, so please skip to the concluding paragraph if you find it too indulgent.

When Sam was young, maybe five or six, I somehow made up an activity to pass time during long car trips. (Big pat on the back for me, the girl who was labeled “Smart, but not creative” by her sixth grade teacher when forced to compose a tall tale and barely managed a derivative retelling of Paul Bunyan.) The activity, usually played with one of those magnetic drawing boards that erases with a slide of the knob, involved me drawing one or two lines or curves and then handing it back to Sam. (N.B., This game requires someone else to be driving.) Sam would then fill in a picture. So, for example, I remember one time I drew this:



What do you see? I do not see anything really. Maybe some diachronic marks from the dictionary’s pronunciation guide. Very literal of me. Sam, on the other hand, drew a bowl of cereal with a spoon and a hand holding a carton of milk, tilted to pour toward the bowl. Per my request, she has redrawn it here, though with a more mature hand.









I stared in awe. Every one of her visions surprised me. More recently she was assigned by her art teacher to create a page of “Noodles and Doodles,” for which she was supposed to draw a continuous curve, like a strand of cooked spaghetti, that overlapped itself in arbitrary places. Then she was supposed to fill in the resulting spaces with doodles. Here is one of her creations.


Sam’s talent for distilling and combining shapes in unexpected ways has continued. I found some of her object/body images and recall the princess with the pumpkin head, the Table family, whose members had broad, flat bodies with heads atop them. The members of the Table family had different personae: there was the soccer player, the ballet dancer, the teacher who carried stacks of books on her shoulders . . .  Then there were the flowerpot people whose bodies were, quite literally, flowerpots.

In fact, looking back through her art I see that her perspective on human figures is not much different from her perspective on flowerpots. Or chicken parts. As her series on vegetarianism illustrates, people are not “special” to her. The first image here is, clearly, a slaughterhouse. The second requires a closer look: each chicken consists of a head and legs affixed to a chicken part cut from a grocery ad. Some people are appalled by these images. Too graphic. Too unsettling. Me? I love them. I love her lack of anthropocentrism. I love her “divergent thinking.”

But I also understand that her perspective is part of her autism. I do not believe she is capable of elevating human beings to a separate, special position, for better and for worse. She is not arrogant about the way she treats other creatures (good, says the environmentalist in me), but I wonder if that’s because she does not experience a particular human connectedness (distressed, says the mother who adores her). To be sure, Sam loves me deeply. She loves all of her family members deeply and will tell us frequently and with conviction. But she also insists on telling her father and me that she loves our cats, and the neighbors’ cats, just as much as she loves us. I think she is telling the truth. I guess it is just an experience of connection that I cannot grasp.

Alas, I seem to be veering into a discussion about what constitutes a meaningful and joyous connection, and that’s a post for another day.

Back to creativity. From what I can tell, this study asked participants to generate ideas about static objects, e.g., paper clips and abstract images. Objects for which the viewer should create his or her own context. Research shows that people with autism have trouble interpreting their experiences within context (see, e.g., Autism as Context Blindness by Peter Vermeulen), so it should not be surprising that they can visualize images they are shown in contexts that most of us do not usually assign to those images.

When Howard Gardner published his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences in 1983, he revolutionized the way educators and psychologists think about intelligence. Rather than measuring only verbal and logical-mathematical reasoning as the well-known Stanford-Binet IQ test does, Gardner suggested that all people possess at least eight modalities of intelligence. Among them are musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, and kinesthetic-physical intelligence. We all possess stronger intelligences in some modalities, and each individual is unique. A child does not need to earn good grades in reading and math to be smart or to have the potential for success.

I hope this research study on creativity is part of a similar transformation in the way we understand creativity. Some creative people may be able to compose fantastic tall tales. Others may be able to reshape the universe in their minds because they are not constrained by conventional wisdom. Other creative folk may. . . who knows? I do believe that autistic people often have a creative gift that merits celebration. We need to stop to find it.