The Thinking Process in Autism

A new research study from the Universities of East Anglia and Stirling suggests that people with autistic traits provide fewer responses when generating solutions to a problem but otherwise the ideas that they do come up with are more original and creative than those of neurotypicals. The abstract for the study reads as follows:

“This research investigates the paradox of creativity in autism. That is, whether people with subclinical autistic traits have cognitive styles conducive to creativity or whether they are disadvantaged by the implied cognitive and behavioural rigidity of the autism phenotype. The relationship between divergent thinking (a cognitive component of creativity), perception of ambiguous figures, and self-reported autistic traits was evaluated in 312 individuals in a non-clinical sample. High levels of autistic traits were significantly associated with lower fluency scores on the divergent thinking tasks. However autistic traits were associated with high numbers of unusual responses on the divergent thinking tasks. Generation of novel ideas is a prerequisite for creative problem solving and may be an adaptive advantage associated with autistic traits.” (Best C et al. The relationship between subthreshold autistic traits, ambiguous figure perception and divergent thinking. JADD 2015 Aug 14 Epub ahead of print).

When screening for divergent thinking the common test question provided as an example is to list as many uses as possible for a paperclip. In this test the answer, “holding a bunch of papers together”, would give you a low score. Other uses like poking snoozing parishioners or using the same as a mount for your smart phone would get you a higher score. According to one of the authors, “People with autistic traits may approach creativity problems in a different way,” said Doherty. “They might not run through things in the same way as someone without these traits would to get the typical ideas, but go directly to less common ones. ( Unfortunately, the authors did not seem to formulate a coherent psychological mechanism capable of explaining their results. As many other psychological observations, it is quite likely that a biological way of sustaining the observation will never be pursued and escapes the skills of the researchers.

Temple Grandin has often been invoked as a highly creative individual with many talents. Her ability to design animal husbandry facilities may be due to her empathizing with animals. The fact that she can easily distinguish the presence of a puddle of water reflecting sunrays as the cause of a derailed round up of cattle may have to do with this empathy. Otherwise her unusual sensitivities as an autistic individual may also be at play. Derek Paravicini is another savant. He was born extremely premature, by itself a risk factor for autism, and oxygen therapy caused him to become blind. He has perfect pitch and it was clear from early on that he was a musical prodigy. You could probably say that his jazz improvisations indicate divergent thinking, but more probably his abilities can be explained, in part, by his perfect pitch and constant practice. Contrary to Doherty’s expression that divergent ideas are ingrained in the workings of an autistic brain -wherein established mechanisms allow them to look for the less common possibilities- the examples of Temple and Derek would make us believe that they do rely primarily on past experiences and abilities (e.g., sensory sensitivities, perfect pitch).

I believe that a divergent way of thinking in autism is the result, in part, of 2 phenomena that at first instance would seem contradictory. First, is the ability of some autistic individuals to defocus their attention in a way that ignores irrelevant or extraneous information. It is part of a cognitive style that emphasizes the particular and concrete at the expense of the larger plan or gestalt.

A second explanation for the divergent thinking of autistic individuals lies in an observation of classical conditioning called latent inhibition. This phenomenon, in the case of an autistic individual, describes how they may treat an otherwise familiar stimulus just as they would a new one. In effect, latent inhibition disables the possibility of blocking extraneous choices of action when presented with a new stimuli and allows you to entertain disparate options. This, in turn, provides a greater freedom or variety of choices.

Latent inhibition is part of our higher cognitive faculties. This ability depends on the filtering options of working memory. Working or sketchpad memory determines the number of variables that you can simultaneously hold in your mind. This is necessary for pattern matching (a characteristic of higher functions that depends on prior experiences).

It may seem at first instance that boosting executive functions would be a way of correcting some of the working memory deficits and processing abnormalities in autism. Still, I have to wonder, at the expense of what? Although benefits gained by brain training may be well received in the educational field, they may provide for a poorer outcome in the personal arena by diminishing some of the qualities that account for the uniqueness of expression of an autistic mind.

More reading material on these subjects can be found at:
A frame of mind: the problem with neurotypicals (
Communication and autism (

2 responses to “The Thinking Process in Autism

  1. At age 4, Derek Paravicini had taught himself to play a large number of pieces on the piano of some melodic and harmonic complexity (such as ‘Smoke Gets in your Eyes’). He is a blind English autistic savant and a musical prodigy. Derek could play a piece of music after hearing it once. He can also “see” musical scales in sequence, for no visual models are guiding him. He painstakingly, through physical demonstration and imitation, acquired the foundations of technique that were necessary for him to move forward. Could there be an unconscious knowledge state which is an essential concept a priori in order to account for the complexity and creativity exhibited by the savant mind? While the exact nature of savant syndrome remains elusive, there is a notable uniformity about savants. Dr. Harold Treffert explains that these unique skills are displayed in almost always five general areas: art, music, calendar counting, mechanical ability, and lightning calculation. Which suggests to Dr. Treffert and others who have studied the condition that savant’s giftedness is the product of the right-brain talent to see the big picture and the left-brain ability to conceive time as a line. The two of them are spliced and laced together. The right brain is better for looking at events all at once, the left brain for looking at each piece, in order. They see the big picture as in a panorama and then reproduce exactly their “vision” in the language of art.


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