While autistics are often praised for their abilities in logical thinking, it might be harder to find recognition of our creativity and imagination. Why is this the case? Well, much of the research on creativity and autism dating back to the ’90s has reported that autistics are limited in creativity.Creativity and Imagination in Autism (Craig & Baron-Cohen, 1999) In fact, difficulties with social aspects of imagination (imaginative play) are currently part of the diagnostic criteria for autism.Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention)
Throughout this article, we will explore the prevailing ideas surrounding creativity and autism, as well as some alternative explanations for how autistics engage in creativity.
What is the difference between creativity and imagination?
Some of the misconceptions surrounding autism and creativity may come from vagueness surrounding what is creativity and what is imagination. While there are various definitions for the two, creativity can be thought of as the ability to create and manipulate images in your mind (imagination) that lead to new, or statistically rare, ideas or concepts that are effective for a specific purpose.Creativity and Imagination in Autism (Craig & Baron-Cohen, 1999)
For example, when I picture an image of a cat picking up its cat bowl with its paws and pouring water into its mouth, I am using my imagination to create a novel (or at least statistically rare) way of picturing a cat drinking water.
In this way, “being creative” can be thought of as using novel concepts to effectively respond to a question (“How would a cat drink water like a human?”) Later on in this article, we will see how skills neurotypicals (NTs) consider to be an effective use of creativity (for example, divergent thinking) can be one area autistics find challenging.
Can autistics be creative?
Can autistics be creative? The answer is obviously yes, absolutely—there are various ways to experience creativity and creative thinking that may differ from person to person. Furthermore, autistics have been shown to have exceptional originality in our thoughts.The Relationship Between Subthreshold Autistic Traits, Ambiguous Figure Perception and Divergent Thinking (Best et al., 2015) As such, I believe the better question is: how may autistics engage in creativity differently from neurotypicals?
One example of creativity that may highlight this difference is divergent thinking, or creativity in the ways we think. A common way researchers measure divergent thinking is how easily people generate new ideas, which are analyzed based on their uniqueness.A snapshot of creativity: evaluating a quick and simple method for assessing divergent thinking (Silvia, Martin, & Nusbaum, 2009) The idea is that the more concepts you come up with, the more creative you are in finding a solution. Research has found that while NTs tend to generate a higher quantity of novel ideas than autistics, the answers rated unique or original came significantly more from autistic people.The Relationship Between Subthreshold Autistic Traits, Ambiguous Figure Perception and Divergent Thinking (Best et al., 2015)Creativity and Imagination in Autism (Craig & Baron-Cohen, 1999)
How I interpret concept generation is like this: For me, I find it generally easy to come up with more language-based ideas for a problem because I feel it’s easier for me to remember things and make connections between what I’ve read in literature or online. However, if you put a box of Lego building blocks in front of me and ask me to build anything I wanted, I wouldn’t be able to put together anything because I’m not much of a visual thinker. In this way, I think a person’s cognitive style may also affect how well they are able to perform different creative tasks.
Because of this, I find the idea that autistics aren’t very good divergent thinkers to be ironically, very narrow-minded. There are many different kinds of thinkers in the autistic community, including those with a tendency to make connections between loosely related ideas easily and systematically.Dimensional schizotypy, autism, and unusual word associations in artists and scientists (Rawlings & Locarnini, 2008)Autism, autistic traits, and creativity: A systematic review and meta-analysis (Pennisi et al., 2021) Understanding autism as a different way of thinking and processing makes it easier to see how creative autistics can actually be! If you would like more information on the types of autistic thinkers, check out our article on autistic thinking styles here.
While divergent thinking might seem like a useful way to illustrate people’s ability to creatively problem-solve, there are also issues with measuring uniqueness. For one, it is much more difficult to find uniqueness within the answers of a large group of participants—the more people that are responding, the more likely the answers will start to look similar. However, in order to find a strong statistical connection, researchers will need a lot more participants. Because of this conundrum, it’s important that we also look at other methods of measuring creativity.
Since aspects of creativity are part of the diagnostic process of autism, knowing how creativity is related to a person’s psychological functioning can be important in differentiating between autistics and NTs. When looking at functioning, many autistics are concerned with our language and social skills. Much of the research has centred around childhood experiences of creativity, likely because that’s when learning language and social skills begin to take central importance in our lives. One important childhood experience here is imaginative play (IP)/make believe.
Social aspects of creativity and autism
Whether children participate in imaginative play or pretend play (engaging in fake social roles and relationships) is seen as beneficial for understanding social roles and rules (ex. sharing, taking turns, etc.). Pretend play may look different for autistics compared to neurotypicals, as sometimes pretend play involves engaging with a toy or an object on their own rather than with another person. This experience also tends to occur later in childhood compared to neurotypicals.Autistic children who create imaginary companions: Evidence of social benefits (Davis et al., 2023) In this way, there are some big differences between how autistics and NTs engage in social creativity and imagination.
Having an imaginary friend in childhood is a common example of IP. Past research has suggested imaginary friends were not common among autistic children.Imaginary companions in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Davis et al., 2018) However, a recent study has seen reports as high as 50% of autistic children engaging in IP.Autistic children who create imaginary companions: Evidence of social benefits (Davis et al., 2023) This suggests that as more and more autistic people find diagnosis as children and as adults, what was once thought of as a “limitation” of autism starts to disappear.
Despite differences in cognitive styles, both autistics and NTs positively benefit from imaginative play. Many studies on NT and autistic children have linked having an imaginary friend to having stronger social skills in real life, including making friends, initiating interactions with others, and maintaining those interactions.Autistic children who create imaginary companions: Evidence of social benefits (Davis et al., 2023) Because researchers are unable to prove which one came first, the data is still unclear whether IP is likely to increase our social skills or whether children with stronger social skills are more naturally inclined to create imaginary friends.
Past research has suggested that autistics lack this ability, and has focused on how missing out on the benefits of IP may relate to social communication difficulties in the future.Individual differences in children’s private speech: The role of imaginary companions (Davis, Meins, & Ferneyhough, 2013) However, this is contradicted by newer research showing that many autistics have reported engaging in IP as children (mostly through the parent’s report of their autistic child’s behaviour).Autistic children who create imaginary companions: Evidence of social benefits (Davis et al., 2023)
Additionally, having parents report on their children’s behaviours could be a potential obstacle in how many children are seen as having engaged with IP or pretend play.Imaginary companions in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Davis et al., 2018) This is because the parents may not be aware of (or may have forgotten about) their child’s imaginary friends, thus there may be more autistic children engaging in IP than research currently suggests. In addition to social imagination, the use of figurative language skills are also examples of measurable creativity in autistics and NTs.
Figurative language and autism
Another aspect of creativity that is thought to be challenging for autistics is figurative language (FL), or using words to convey a non-literal meaning. Examples of types of FL tests include metaphor generation and comprehension, where study participants come up with their own metaphors and have to decide which metaphor is most appropriate for an example. For example, one study had participants fill in the blank word of a sentence to create a metaphor that is judged by researchers on originality and appropriateness (“Feeling worthless is… a totally smashed lemon.”Verbal and Figural Creativity in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Typical Development (Kasirer, Adi-Japha, & Mashal, 2020)
A review of the literature on FL, creativity, and autistics has suggested that autistics find FL, particularly metaphor generation, more challenging compared to NTs.Figurative language comprehension in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: A meta-analytic review (Kalandadze et al., 2018) Others have found no significant differences between autistics and NTs in language generation and comprehension. Intact fluency in autism? A comprehensive approach of verbal fluency task including word imageability and concreteness (Tóth et al., 2022) On the other hand, one study found that autistics produced more novel, original metaphors than NTs.Verbal and Figural Creativity in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Typical Development (Kasirer, Adi-Japha, & Mashal, 2020)
Even though research has found that many autistics struggle with these non-literal concepts, it’s not indicative of all autistics. In my experience, I’ve learned to use figurative language like sarcasm in social interactions when I want to deflect from feeling uncomfortable feelings. However, I also like to explain that I’m joking afterwards because I’m not certain the other person will understand. Based on my own changing relationship with FL, I believe autistic people may also find that their relationship to language isn’t black and white either.
Similarly, other researchers suggest that difficulties with FL are linked to difficulties with core language skills. They found that language levels had a stronger relationship to FL comprehension than autistic traits, meaning that how well people naturally grasp language skills might affect FL comprehension more than simply having autistic traits would Creativity in Autism: An Examination of General and Mathematic Creative Thinking Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Children with Typical Development (Hetzroni et al., 2019)
Alternative explanations for limited creativity in autistics
Communication as an obstacle between autistics and neurotypicals
Why do people think autistics lack creativity? Well, for one, many autistics find it challenging to communicate their internal and physical experiences to neurotypicals because of our different communication styles. Most of the research presented here focused on evidence from young children who may or may not have the tools to communicate their experiences to their caregivers.
Similarly, engaging in pretend play with other people (like NT children might do) could be challenging for autistic children because they might be bored (or even ridiculed) for not playing within the expected social roles and rules. For example, engaging in the popular game of pretending to follow heteronormative rules about being a family (mom, dad, baby) might be uninteresting or confusing for the autistic child who would rather be a mermaid. Therefore, they would rather play on their own, using their imagination to create their own worlds for pretend play. This is an example of how creativity is present in autistics but may be difficult to communicate with others.
Executive function difficulties characteristic of autism may affect word generativity
One literature review on creativity and autistic traits found an interesting, albeit small, link between executive functions and the ability to generate novel metaphors. Autism, autistic traits, and creativity: A systematic review and meta-analysis (Pennisi et al., 2021) Two other studies found a positive link between a task primarily studying executive functions and novel metaphor generation, however, another study found no relationship between creativity and executive functions.Verbal creativity in autism: comprehension and generation of metaphoric language in high-functioning autism spectrum disorder and typical development (Kasirer and Mashal, 2014)Comprehension and generation of metaphors by children with autism spectrum disorder (Kasirer and Mashal, 2016) The researchers of the review noted that more research is needed on the relationship between attention and creativity as most participants who lack attention to creativity tests are often removed from studies.
Other research has found that working memory (a subset of executive function) along with divergent thinking, helps to predict more creative answers to problem-solving measures Executive functioning and divergent thinking predict creative problem-solving in young adults and elderlies (Cancer et al., 2023). These researchers studied 30 NT young adults and 30 elderly people who performed a two-part concept generation and comprehension task, using their memory to identify which of the ideas they came up with were most effective in solving a problem. These studies indicate a much more complex relationship between creativity and higher-level cognitive processes.
There’s no lack or limit of creativity in autistics; it just looks differently
Finally, while autistics may score lower than neurotypicals on tests measuring creativity, it’s important to keep in mind that many of these tests were created by neurotypicals for NTs. I personally feel that tests measuring creativity through word generation will miss out on people (like myself) who will have already done the extra thinking in our brains to give only the answers we feel are appropriate. Therefore, we may not generate as many answers, but our answers are still creative with more details and originality.Verbal and Figural Creativity in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Typical Development (Kasirer, Adi-Japha, & Mashal, 2020) As such we need more research on autistics of various ages and backgrounds that could help explain what creativity looks like for them.
- Creativity is the ability to come up with new ideas/concepts for the purpose of solving a question or problem. We use our imagination as a way to create unique, original ideas.
- Creativity in autistics may look very different from creativity in neurotypicals, however, that does not mean it’s not there (it is). For example, while NTs tend to generate a lot more novel ideas than autistics (divergent thinking), the answers autistics provide are rich with originality, regardless of numbers.
- Past research has long stated that autistics have trouble with creativity, specifically in areas of understanding figurative language and engaging in imaginative play. However, new studies show that many autistics not only engage in IP but also reap similar social skill benefits from it to neurotypicals. Similarly, how strong core language skills are may also affect autistics’ figurative language comprehension.
- Life-long differences in communication and thinking processes, as well as new research on how executive dysfunction may influence divergent thinking, may all somewhat account for the misconceptions about autistics’ creative ability that have been present in research.