Autism and the imaginative mind

Roth, Ilona (2007). Autism and the imaginative mind. In: Roth, Ilona ed. Proceedings of the British Academy: Imaginative Minds. Proceedings of the British Academy, 147. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 277–306.




Current accounts of the characteristic features of autisic conditions embody a curious paradox. Autism is usually assumed to entail impairments of the imagination. Symptoms consistent with this view are prominent throughout the clinical and research profile of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Yet some individuals with an autism spectrum diagnosis display remarkable gifts in fields typically associated with creative imagination, such as music, art, and poetry. While the essential creativity of their work has been questioned, it has also become popular to suggest that some individuals of outstanding and well-recognised creative talent - Samuel Beckett, Andy Warhol, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Albert Einstein for instance - suffered from autistic spectrum conditions. This claim seems to imply that autism not only is compatible with creative imagination, but in some sense promotes or facilitates it.

In this chapter I outline the evidence for impairments of the imagination in ASD, and show how these problems align with key psychological models of autism. I evaluate the evidence for elements of preserved imagination, considering autistic visual art and insights from my research into autistic spectrum poetry. I conclude by highlighting broader implications of the complex relationship between autism and the imagination.

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