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Autism, ADHD, and Creativity

I have always been fascinated by the need for some people to redefine disabilities and differences as gifts, blessings, and strengths. When I was struggling with graduate school, the educational psychologist suggested the book Driven to Distraction. Instead of recognizing attention deficit disorder is a problem, a barrier to academic success, the psychologist was convinced that I had attention deficit and it explained my creative writing and other artistic interests.

I am doubtful of such associations, such as popular myths connecting depression, substance abuse, or other mental health issues to artistic genius. I wonder if statistically there truly is a significant correlation between talent and difference. Although we know the many famous stories of depressed or addicted writers and artists, what about the numerous artists no more or less challenged / impaired than the rest of the population?

When asked if I believed that my autistic traits contributed to my creativity, my reply is that every person's traits contribute to that individual's success in a chosen field. It is plausible that my sensory issues affect how I write about experiences, but that does not make my writing better or worse than anyone else's writing.

Practice, even if one has what might be called natural talent, is key to mastery of any artistic or intellectual pursuit. Practice, practice, and more practice. When you are passionate about an activity, it is easier to practice that activity. No one has to tell me that the more I write the better my writing will be. It is true that some autistics focus on an activity. Individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder also focus intensely on favorite activities.

However, I know many autistics unable to focus on a skill or activity. These individuals focus on remembering facts or observed details. Only a small fraction of the autistic adults I have met are creative artists. Yet the reality is that few people are professional creative artists. I have not met a higher percentage nor a lower percentage of autistics with unusual, superior creative abilities.

When I speak to groups, parents often ask how they will discover the savant skills of their autistic children. Statistically, fewer than 10% of autistics have splinter or savant skills. A splinter skill means that one has unusual aptitude performing a task, but not a creative form of the skill. For example, being able to play music after hearing a song once is a splinter skill, not savantism. Being able to copy, mimic, or re-create is not the same mental process as generating new insights and connections.

Many individuals in my family are creative. My sister and father have artistic talents, and I consider them creative individuals. My mother enjoys many craft hobbies, such as sewing. Therefore, I do not consider my interest in arts and crafts to be related to anything unusual about me. I believe all children are interested in creating, but throughout school we tend to dampen the innate creativity of the human mind. Thankfully, my family never discouraged my creativity.

Instead of asking if people with atypical neurologies are uniquely creative, we should wonder why we are not better at nurturing the creativity of all individuals.


  1. Practice does not make creativity. Practice makes one able to do the same thing over and over again the same way. Creativity has to do with doing something new. One maybe be able to draw well or play music well, but that doesn't make one able to create in a new way.

    My son definitely has beyond average musical talent. I do think part of it is related to his autism. However, he could still have beyond average music talent and not be autistic, but I do think it would be a different music talent than what he has. I think his autism does affect the kind of talent he has with music; and the autism (being a minority way of being) causes the musical talent to be a minority expression of the talent. The less common a talent the more it stands out to people, the more it seems remarkable.

    If 90 percent of the population were autistic and 10 percent what we consider typical, then I'm certain that the 10% would often appear to be extremely gifted to the 90% because they would usually be able to do what the autistic 90% cannot, and yet the 90% autistic would struggle with whether to understand the 10% as gifted or disordered and the 10% would be lacking in abilities that are commonly held by the 90%. I certainly feel disordered compared to my son in the ability to remember facts and details and the ability to understand the structure of music.

    I'm curious as to what the definition of savant is. Going back to the topic of my son, he has perfect pitch and can recreate short pieces (though he is more likely to change them as he goes). He is also creative, creating new music, stunning his piano teacher with his sophisticated and original choices (not all of the time, but it has happened). His drawings are also a combination of ability to remember detail with an assembling of those details based on his own inner vision.

  2. Ruby:

    Studies have found that the "creative" people within an artistic field have the most hours of practice in that field. The "10,000 Hour Rule" has been widely discussed in both scientific papers and popular science reporting. It is reasonable to expect that creativity alone is insufficient: one still has to master orchestration before composing for a symphonic arrangement.

    Practice doesn't lead to creativity, but studies have shown that no matter where you "start" with a skill, after 10,000 hours you are at the top of the discipline and do demonstrate creative synthesis. (Gladwell's book Outliers explores this.) We might write that "an extreme amount of practice" leads to creative expression within the "typical" population. I've met autistics with more than 10,000 hours of a skill, but no clear demonstrative creative synthesis. I do not know what the barriers are to synthesis, but creativity definitely exists in some autistics and not others.

    Savantism vs. Splinter Skills: - Dr. Darold Treffert, a Wisconsin psychiatrist, has been studying Savant Syndrome for over 40 years. His most recent publication, Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant, was published by Jessica Kingsley, Inc. in April 2010.

    The Treffert Scale is used by several autism and savantism research projects.

    Savant skills exist over a spectrum of abilities. The most common savant abilities are called splinter skills. These include behaviors such as obsessive preoccupation with, and memorization of, music and sports trivia, license plate numbers, maps, historical facts, or obscure items such as vacuum cleaner motor sounds, for example.

    Some researchers do not consider "splinter skills" to be savantism. This is because they consider a "savant" to be one capable of more than memorization -- creativity and originality are included. Personally, I'm fine with "splinter" being part of some "savant range" or whatever we wish to call it.

    Talented savants are those persons in whom musical, artistic, mathematical or other special skills are more prominent and highly honed, usually within an area of single expertise, and are very conspicuous when viewed against their overall handicap.

    The term prodigious savant is reserved for those very rare persons in this already uncommon condition where the special skill or ability is so outstanding that it would be spectacular even if it were to occur in a non-handicapped person. There are probably fewer than 50 prodigious savants living worldwide at the present time who would meet this high threshold of special skill.

  3. Thanks for your reply.

    Maybe I use the word "practice" differently than the scientists in the study. To me, practice involves repeating something over and over until done exactly in the specified way. It accomplishes memorization (whether mental or physical), which is useful later to draw on when being creative, but isn't a production of creativity itself. So practice could help creativity, but I doubt its going to produce it in a uncreative individual by itself.

    Some folks just don't create original stuff even though they are intelligent and spend hours and hours doing something (I think of my neurologically typical sister who has spent hours doing needlework but never designs a new piece and does not care to even think about doing it).

    I wouldn't call what my son does "practice" but it may qualify for what the scientists called practice. He spends hours and hours at the piano and drawing, but it isn't with the purpose of mastering the skill of producing an exact copy of something. Rather it is with the purpose of exploration, understanding and expression. Mastery is more a by-product. What he does is creativity that comes from the joy of discovery and expression. Without the understanding and a certainly level of mastery that comes from the hours and hours of this exploration, he wouldn't be able to be creative because he wouldn't have the information or skills to draw on to produce something.

    Maybe what the scientists are talking about it hours of serious involvement?

    BTW, I love the last sentence in your post: "Instead of asking if people with atypical neurologies are uniquely creative, we should wonder why we are not better at nurturing the creativity of all individuals." I'm not sure some folks would ever really be very creative, but at least all individuals should be nurtured for what they might excel at.

    My response to parents would be to pay attention to who their kids are and what they love and feed that love and expose their children to lots of variety of talented people and interesting subjects. My son showed interest in music early by running for the TV during the music at the beginning and end of the TV show but very often not watching the show itself (unless musical) and by showing a talent in understanding patterns -- from these we gleaned that he might like to study music and we gave him the opportunity to take piano lessons as well as exposed him to other musical resources. It might not have worked, but if we hadn't payed attention and then tested our guess by giving it a try, we never would have know that this ability was there.

    Also, I'd advise parents to watch for what their children have a love/hate relationship with because it may indicate an area of intelligence. My son objects when I sing, lol. If a child hates something, it may be because they are being exposed to an inferior version of it (like my singing) and they KNOW it. If you give them a bad teacher, they will hate it, not love it. A friend of mine has a son who hated a math class, wanted to hit the teacher because from the child's point of view the teacher was lying. Which reminds me of my son having meltdowns when he was a toddler over a book that had the planets wrong (another one of his loves, expressed by his intolerance of it being wrong).

    I should shut up now and put these thoughts in my own blog :)

  4. Pedagogically, "practice" is similar to what athletes do: they repeat exercises to improve skills and refine memory of the skills that must be applied in unanticipated ways. You can train to play a sport, but no two competitions or games are the same. You have to analyze new contexts and make adjustments you've never made before -- but somehow, you know how to make them.

    Designing patterns is not the same as sewing. In fact, I know pattern designers with no ability to sew or stitch. However, studies suggest you cannot compose music without some playing ability. Original painting requires some practice with the techniques. In other words, you must develop specific skills for specific creative tasks -- but you can also master those tasks with no creative goal.

    Musicians will tell you every performance is a creative act. Music is "interpreted" while it is played. I have friends who can determine which pianist is playing a piece. No idea how, but they can. I doubt we could say the same for following a needlepoint pattern.

    I'm a language arts specialist, and I study the development of writing skills among students with challenges.

    There are cognitive scientists with scales of "skills" that determine when (or if) the skill shifts towards a creative act. In writing, we consider it creative the moment a child or adult generates a new, original sentence. People have little idea how much brain power is required to write, because you are seldom repeating a sentence you've heard or read before. Most "typical" children try to write stories and create original drawings. We then mark up the stories and tell the students how flawed their creations are.

    Writing "creativity" peaks in the middle grades for most students (about age 12-14). Sadly, many stop trying to improve creative writing and focus on what we might call functional literacy skills. Writing remains original and shows complex thinking, but the creativity only continues to expand and develop if someone practices creative writing forms. That requires challenging yourself -- making the work harder and harder.

    It would require an entire book to explore, but creativity is something that we seem almost dedicated to destroying in our schools. I'm still asked how an "autistic writer" can be creative and why I think creative expression is essential to advocacy.

    Yes, I wish parents of all children thought about creativity, especially the parents of special needs children.

  5. What if some people don't want to be more creative? Shouldn't we let them be who they are?

    I'm sure we all must exercise some level of creativity to survive. Yes every sentence construction is a creative choice, but there is no doubt that some are more creative than others and than some folks prefer to be creative and other prefer extremely limited amounts of creativity.

    I hate for someone who is less creative to feel that others were disappointed in them for it, felt they were less valuable, less important.

    I think I'd encourage people to be free to be themselves within reasonable boundaries of functional survival. My sister will never be extremely creative, but she makes an important contribution to society as who she is.


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