You plug your computer into an outlet and do some work. Then you remember to pick up a present for a family friend who loves all things Little Mermaid. Knowing that makes gifting easy.
And you just benefitted from neurodivergent creativity three times in a row. The way electricity gets to your house? Nicola Tesla. Computers? Alan Turing. The Little Mermaid (and the Ugly Duckling, and the Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Princes and the Pea)? Hans Christian Andersen.
Of course, diagnosing historical figures based on records and accounts of others is an imprecise exercise. And yet, many documents point to a significant extent of neurodivergent traits displayed by all of these creative geniuses.
Nicola Tesla’s many inventions include the alternating current (AC) – the electric current used by homes and appliances, along with remote control and the Tesla coil, a foundation of wireless transmission. The “father of the 20th century” visualized and tested his inventions in his mind. He also kept the same routine every day, felt that the sound of the train 30 miles away was “deafening,” and displayed many other characteristics typically associated with autism.
Similarly to Tesla, Alan Turing, the key figure in developing modern computing, had an extreme commitment to his research interests and dedicated most of his time to his inventions. He also avoided eye contact and only had one friend at school. Some have argued that in addition to autistic traits he had characteristics of dyslexia, but others find the evidence insufficient. It is likely that Turing’s portrayal in the movie “The Imitation Game,” depicting his work on developing an early computer while breaking the Nazi WW2 code, had greatly exaggerated his possible autistic attributes. Nevertheless, most of those who studied this life agree that he had displayed a non-negligible level of autistic traits.
Hans Christian Andersen is reported to have been socially awkward, “different,” and often bullied. Some researchers argue that he used his characters to describe autistic experiences. Indeed, his characters represent many autistic characteristics and struggles of interacting with the unhospitable and uncomfortable world. These include communication difficulties and the high price of masking and fitting in (the Little Mermaid’s loss of voice and the excruciating pain of walking), being bullied and gaslighted (the Ugly Duckling), sensory sensitivities (Princess and the Pea), and the inconvenient truth-telling (the Little Child in the Emperor’s New Clothes).
But do these examples align with research findings regarding neurodiversity and creativity, or are they simply exceptions?
WHAT IS CREATIVITY?
Teresa Amabile, a distinguished creativity scholar, defines creativity as the production of ideas or outcomes that are both novel and practically valuable – appropriate to achieving a goal. Something that is simply different, but does not serve the accomplishment of a valuable outcome, is insufficient. Lighting homes with electricity, breaking the Nazi code, and creating edifying and entertaining tales meet this definition. So would more commonplace examples, such as writing a particularly effective and original business proposal or successfully fixing a broken piece of future in an unconventional way.
Amabile also outlined the componential theory of creativity. It includes three within-individual components:
- domain-relevant skills (expertise in the relevant area or areas),
- task motivation (specifically, the intrinsic motivation to engage in the activity out of interest, enjoyment, or a personal sense of challenge),
- creativity-relevant processes (cognitive and personality processes that support novel thinking).
The final creativity component is outside the individual. It is the surrounding environment – specifically, the social environment. Understanding these components helps systematically examine findings on neurodivergent creativity.
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY ABOUT NEURODIVERGENT CREATIVITY?
Domain-relevant skill development and task motivation.
It is possible that specific manifestations of neurodivergence can enhance both domain-relevant skill development and task motivation.
Extreme dedication to their work is a shared characteristic of historical creatives thought to be autistics. Research on autistic talent development suggests that when autistic children progress significantly beyond allistic children, the autistic characteristic of “restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests” might explain the accomplishment.
While expertise is not a sufficient condition for creativity, it is needed to prevent reinventing the wheel. Knowledge of what had come before defines what is required to go beyond that prior work. In autism, focused skill and expertise development often associated with special interests, supported by strong intrinsic motivation, can facilitate and accelerate the development of expertise. In a large-sample study, autistic participants’ engagement in their special interests was much more intrinsically motivated than allistic engagement in activities of interest. Autistic individuals were more motivated by intrinsic interest and knowledge, as well as engagement and flow as compared to allistic controls. Groups did not differ significantly in extrinsic motivation.
The ability to hyperfocus on a topic of interest is documented in individuals with ADHD as well. This may also support creativity in the area of interest through persistence and intrinsic motivation.
Creativity-relevant cognitive and personality processes.
The research on creativity-relevant cognitive and personality processes also provides evidence of the connection between creativity and neurodivergence – including domains that are counter stereotypical.
Andersen’s literary creativity gave us many metaphors that are now used in daily conversations in many languages. These include “the Emperor has no clothes” to refer to people and groups pretending not to notice an obvious problem out of fear and conformity, and “the Ugly Duckling” to refer to someone whose potential is not valued or appreciated. If the assessment of Andersen’s autistic traits is correct, is his literary accomplishment an exception or a characteristic possibly found in other autistic people?
While stereotypically autistic talent is associated with science and technology, research indicates that autistic people exhibit higher levels of verbal originality than allistic populations. In a study of metaphor use, autistic adults performed similarly to allistic adults on metaphor recognition, but generated more creative novel metaphors, which points to unique verbal creativity in autism. In another study, autistic children and teenagers also demonstrated verbal creativity by producing a greater quantity of creative metaphors as compared to allistic controls.
It appears that Andersen’s literary imagination is not a counter stereotypical anomaly, but a characteristic of a significant segment of autistic populations.
Other research with autistic populations suggests that a detail-focused cognitive style of autistic individuals supports the development of special talents. Autistic individuals also tend to experience the enhanced ability to become immersed in their activities (negatively framed as lower self-awareness). This characteristic is likely to facilitate implicit learning via extracting the world’s statistical regularities and promote the achievement of flow. In addition, the independent thinking tendency – lower than the average concern with convention and conformity to the opinions of others, characteristics of many autistic people, may facilitate creative breakthroughs. Combined, these support the “true originality” of autistic talent “that is hard to find in other groups.”
Research on ADHD and creativity indicates that in college students, ADHD is associated with higher levels of divergent thinking and lower levels of convergent thinking, possibly due to the lower levels of inhibition. This cognitive style may facilitate “thinking outside the box.”
Available studies with dyslexic populations provide some support for the idea of dyslexic creativity, in particular, among dyslexic adults. According to a recent meta-analysis, dyslexic adults, though not children or adolescents, demonstrate enhanced creativity as measured by tasks involving figures. Studies involving dyslexic children are inconclusive, although some align with the popular notion of the dyslexic originality advantage. For example, dyslexic primary-school students in Iran scored higher than non-dyslexics controls on original thinking. Other research demonstrated that dyslexic adults often self-select into fields associated with creativity, such as art.
Interpreting the existing research on neurodivergent creativity requires some caution. It is important to remember that there is a full range of abilities in neurodivergent populations, including a wide range of creativity. Stereotyping of any group is undesirable. While negative stereotypes can limit individuals’ opportunities, positive stereotypes can create stress and unrealistic expectations. Individual-level assessment of unique patterns of ability, rather than group-level data, should guide job matching and career development of every person. In addition, research still needs to disentangle the effects of creativity factors inherent in the individual from environmental factors.
Environmental factors that influence the creativity of all might be even more critical for neurodivergent employees. These factors could make a difference between realized and unrealized potential.
Workplace research indicates that unhealthy organizational politics, harsh criticism of new ideas (the lack of psychological safety), excessive time pressure, and organizational inertia can block creativity. Moreover, these negative environmental influences might be felt by neurodivergent employees particularly strongly. On the other hand, positive organizational environments support creativity. The sense of constructive challenge that can lead to flow, creative freedom, support, and recognition of creative contributions all facilitate creativity on the organizational level. In addition, the ingenuity and performance of all employees, and particularly of neurodivergent contributors who are often extremely sensitive to their environments, can be enhanced by job-crafting and strength-based work.
Creating organizational systems that support the performance and well-being of neurodivergent talent will help realize the full potential of neurodivergent creativity – and improve work for all. Neurodivergent geniuses of the past accomplished their feats of creativity despite the societal mistreatment, abuse, and rejection. Their immense accomplishments are a reflection not just of their success and perseverance, but of an even more immense potential that was not realized. With nurturing and support, current generations of talent can create and invent a future of great flourishing.