The researchers call it the "paradox of creativity" in autism.
For many years, scientists believed that individuals with the disorder may be at a disadvantage due to the rigidity with which many see the world. But a surprising new study published this month found the opposite -- that people with autistic traits excel in coming up with unusually creative ideas.
The British study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, involved the analysis of data from 312 people who took part in a series of tests on creativity. It turned out that those who had autistic traits offered fewer responses to problems presented, but their solutions were more original and creative than those who did not have autistic traits.
In one "divergent thinking" task, participants were asked to list possible uses for a paper clip. The researchers rated the answers for quantity, elaborateness and unusualness. Some of the creative responses included as wire to support flowers, a paper airplane weight and a token for game.
"Generation of novel ideas is a prerequisite for creative problem solving and may be an adaptive advantage associated with autistic traits," Catherine Best, a health researcher at the University of Stirling, and her co-authors wrote.
The researchers said the results help explain why some of the most famous people with autism are in creative fields. Actress Darryl Hannah has been outspoken about her struggles with autism since she was a child. Tito Mukhopadhyay is virtually mute, but the eloquent poems he writes by hand or types out have provided a window into how an autistic person experiences life. And architectural artist Stephen Wiltshire has become well known for his ability to draw landscapes in exacting detail even after seeing them only once. In recent years, many have commented that a number of the titans of Silicon Valley, whose creative products are leading to perhaps unprecedented economic and social upheaval, also have autistic traits.