Especially creative ideas may be more likely to come from individuals with high levels of autism traits, a new study suggests, hinting at a possible advantage for those on the spectrum.

When presented with a challenge, researchers found that those with more behaviors and thought processes characteristic of autism offered fewer ideas, but tended to come up with more original solutions.

“People with autistic traits may approach creativity problems in a different way,” said Martin Doherty of the University of East Anglia in England, a co-author of the study published online this month in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. “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.”

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For the study, researchers looked at responses from 312 people — 75 of whom said they had received a diagnosis on the autism spectrum — who participated in an online questionnaire designed to measure traits of autism and assess creativity.

Participants were asked in one test to identify as many potential uses for a paper clip as they could. While many people said that a paper clip could be used as a hook, pin or for cleaning small spaces, less common responses included identifying the office supply as a potential paper airplane weight, a wire to support cut flowers or a token for a game.

Researchers found that individuals who generated four or more responses considered to be unusual exhibited a higher number of autism traits.

Conversely, when study participants were presented with abstract drawings and asked to provide as many ideas as possible to explain the images, researchers found that those with the lowest number of autistic traits tended to generate the most ideas.

“This is the first study to find a link between autistic traits and the creative thinking processes,” said Catherine Best of the University of Stirling in Scotland who led the study. “It goes a little way towards explaining how it is that some people with what is often characterized as a ‘disability’ exhibit superior creative talents in some domains.”

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