In tests of "divergent thinking," individuals with high levels of autistic traits were more likely to come up with original and unusual ideas.
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by problems with social, emotional and communication skills.
In the US, it is estimated that around 1 in 68 children have autism, with the disorder being five times as common among boys than girls.
Previous studies have suggested that people with autistic traits - but who do not meet the criteria for an autism diagnosis - may possess greater cognitive skills than those without such characteristics.
According to Dr. Catherine Best, health researcher at the University of Stirling in the UK, this latest study builds on those previous findings, suggesting people with autistic traits have greater creative problem-solving skills.
"This is the first study to find a link between autistic traits and the creative thinking processes," she says. "It goes a little way toward explaining how it is that some people with what is often characterized as a 'disability' exhibit superior creative talents in some domains."
High autistic traits linked to more unusual ideas in creativity tests
To reach their findings, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Dr. Best and colleagues analyzed data from 312 individuals who anonymously completed an online questionnaire that gathered information on autistic traits.
Each subject also took part in a number of creativity tests, which required them to think of as many alternative uses for a paper clip or a brick as they could - known as "divergent thinking." The researchers then assessed the quantity of participants' ideas, as well as their unusualness and elaborateness.
- Around 3.5 million people in the US are living with autism
- The prevalence of autism in the US has risen by almost 120% since 2000
- It is estimated that in 10 years time, the annual cost of autism in the US will be around $236-262 billion.
While subjects with higher levels of autistic traits produced fewer ideas than those with lower levels, the team found the ideas they did produce were more original and unusual.
Study co-author Dr. Martin Doherty, from the School of Psychology at the UK's University of East Anglia, says these findings came as a surprise, as individuals with high autistic traits are normally viewed as having a more "rigid" thinking process.
The team notes previous research using the same creativity tests has found individuals commonly use word association and other simple mental strategies to generate obvious ideas first, before using more complex mental strategies to come up with more creative ideas.
However, the researchers hypothesize that individuals with autism may delve into the more complex mental strategies first, enabling them to initially generate more unusual ideas.
"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," explains Dr. Doherty.
These findings, the researchers say, provide a greater understanding of how the brains of individuals with autistic traits adapt to creative problem solving in day-to-day life.
Dr. Best points out, however, that not all people with autistic traits will have greater creative problem-solving capabilities.
"It should be noted that there is a lot of variation among people with autism. There can be people whose ability to function independently is greatly impaired and other people who are much less affected," she explains.
"Similarly, not all individuals with the disorder, or the traits associated with it, will exhibit strengths in creative problem solving. Trying to understand this variation will be a key part of understanding autism and the impact it has on people's lives."
Greater creativity may not be limited to individuals with autistic traits. In June, a study published in Nature Neuroscience detailed the discovery of a genetic link between creativity and schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.