Autism, Creativity and Aesthetics

Roth, Ilona (2018). Autism, Creativity and Aesthetics. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 17(4) pp. 498–508.



This essay reflects on creative imagination in people on the autism spectrum. A key diagnostic criterion for autism-restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests- together with a small number of research studies, suggest that generating original ideas or artefacts may be challenging for autistic people. Yet a minority within this population has exceptional artistic gifts, and a wider group embraces activities typically associated with creative expression, including visual art, music, poetry and theatre. One approach to reconciling these divergent profiles has been to attribute accomplished work by autistic artists to cognitive skills other than creativity, notably exceptional memory, meticulously accurate representation or ‘rule-following’. I suggest that this involves an aesthetic double standard, since styles such as realism are not considered antithetical to creativity when employed by neurotypical or non-autistic artists. The notion that autistic art constitutes a unified stylistic genre is in any case overly reductive, as illustrated by the varied character of both poetry and visual art by this group. Moreover, ‘Outsider Art’, a movement which undoubtedly promotes neurodiverse artists, also risks insulating their work from mainstream aesthetic standards. Autistic art, whether or not characterised by particular motifs and subject matter, calls for a nuanced and inclusive concept of creativity. My reflection starts with a poem, an appropriate medium to express my captivation with the paradox and promise of autistic art, and how it inspires my own imagination. It ends by highlighting the positive potential of creative activities for all with autism.

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