Creative writing by people with autism is something that’s interested me for a really long time. I’m a bit biased since I’m on the autism spectrum and happen to have done a creative writing degree but the connection came separately to even thinking about that and it’s something that, at the time, was one of those amazing ‘lightbulb’ moments when suddenly something ‘clicks’ and starts to make sense. I was doing my undergrad degree in philosophy and was writing my dissertation about The Little Mermaid (the Andersen version, not Disney) when I came across an article online which suggested that Hans Christian Andersen may have been on the autism spectrum. At the same time, the psychologist I was seeing in an eating disorder service had recently done an ASD assessment and concluded that she thought I had an autism spectrum disorder (Asperger’s) and my lifelong obsession has been The Little Mermaid so the whole thing kind of synced and suddenly everything seemed to make sense, and it was thanks to that that my interest in autism and creative writing developed properly.
Autism is defined by the National Autistic Society as “a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.” It is a spectrum which ranges from severely autistic, where someone might not be able to communicate verbally at all, to high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. People with Asperger’s Syndrome typically have difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination, and this could be shown through creative writing as stories with very little dialogue which are mostly based on fact and theory, or stories based around special interests. An autistic character in a story could also show preference for the physical, or sensory, experience rather than emotional and would demonstrate the difficulty that some people on the autism spectrum have with recognising or identifying emotions.
As part of a module at university a few years ago, I did a research-based assignment about different types of creativity and how they could relate to autism. Unfortunately, I misunderstood how to write a scale and accidentally measured the two types separately instead of comparing them so the results were not valid, but some of the research was really interesting. The report looked at two facets of creativity which are involved in creative writing: logical and emotional creativity. This is particularly relevant to autism because impairments in abstract imagination are part of the criteria for autism and Asperger Syndrome, and logical or more systematic thought is common in autistic people. I used the definition of ‘creative’ from the Oxford English Dictionary which defines it as “Relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something” (OED). In relation to creative writing, this would mean that creative writing can be defined as a piece of original writing which involves the use of the imagination. This does not exclude the use of factual information or theoretical ideas; instead, it would mean that facts or theory would be synthesised in an imaginative way such as the way in which Lewis Carroll explores ideas from mathematics and logic in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is written in a way that in very similar to the way in which an autistic person might write. The scenes appear random and disorganised, and don’t seem to follow a coherent structure but the internal rules of Wonderland and conversations with the characters themselves are very logical and literal. This would fit with autistic perception because people on the autism spectrum often have difficulties with central coherence, which is the ability to process and organise large amounts of complex material and events, and this can often lead to focus on details or distinct ideas rather than a coherent narrative.
Creative writing itself also has a variety of definitions- a short Facebook poll gave definitions from “An expression of thoughts, ideas and perceptions presented in an imaginative and original way” and “an act of writing which is directed by its author(s) for a specific purpose, towards a specific objective – the written work – in which creativity refers to problem solving efforts in the work’s construction and the author’s attempts to marry language, form, structure, and subject” to “the repeated banging your head against a wall for some mysterious purpose known only to dead, great people” (taken from a Facebook status asking for definitions of ‘creative writing’ that could be used as examples in a psychology report). The report looked at creative writing in terms of (fictional) short stories and poetry, without venturing into areas such as creative non-fiction or autobiographical writing.
The report looked at the dichotomy of two facets of creativity, which have been termed ‘logical’ and ‘emotional’ creativity. In a creative writing context, logical writing would be stories or poems which are structured, analytical or theoretical with an emphasis on information or ideas whereas emotional writing would be stories or poems which aim to provoke an emotional response in the reader. Writing is not one or the other; some writers use both approaches, but I have differentiated them in relation to autism because many people on the autism spectrum have difficulties with recognising or expressing emotions. In a study in 1999, Paul Hughes looked at how fictionalising the ‘self’ in writing can be beneficial for a person with Asperger’s syndrome in understanding their own Asperger self and how that understanding can be transferred to social situations and this is similar to a way in which the Sims computer game can be beneficial for children and adolescents on the autism spectrum because it allows them to simulate life and social interactions in a non-threatening way and to learn and practise important skills.
Ira Lightman, a conceptual poet who self-identifies as having an autism spectrum disorder, writes in an essay called ‘Untitled’ (2012) that “I will often write a poem based on a structural game, building my kind of mode around me; if I feel safe, I can discover emotion during the writing”. This exemplifies the ideas that this report is trying to explore. People on the autism spectrum often have very intense interests or obsessions and this is linked to a love of structure and routine, which can be used in creative writing as stories or poems based around a special interest. In 1998, a study by Lee and Hobson found that people with Asperger’s Syndrome tended to describe their personality in terms of their interests and often could not define personality and writing could be used as a way to explore this through the use of a special interest.
Many people on the autism spectrum find that they can express themselves more easily in writing than verbally, and creative writing can be beneficial for mental health because it can explore or articulate feelings in a way that makes them more accessible. It can also be related directly to any area of special interest such as an interest in science fiction or fantasy, or a fascination with a particular area of history. In 2009, Harbinson and Alexander’s study into students with Asperger syndrome and the English curriculum found that difficulties with the imaginative and emotional interpretation of creative writing and literature as could be a disadvantage for students with Asperger syndrome, and an exploration of a more logical and theory or fact-based style of writing could be a way to prevent this, and this would interesting to develop as part of further research into the way in which creative writing could be both adapted to an autistic population and how autistic people could use creative writing as a form of expression.
The quantitative method used to gather the data was to design an eight-level Likert scale to measure participants’ attitudes towards creative writing. There were eight questions that related to logical writing and eight questions related to emotional writing. Four of each set of eight questions were negatively weighted and the method was forced choice as there was no ‘neutral’ option. This measure was invalid because I misunderstood the instructions and accidentally designed two scales in one questionnaire and had a Cronbach’s alpha measurement of 0.267, which gave twice the amount of variables and was very difficult to interpret. Is this were to be repeated, it could be broadened to include qualitative research such as looking at transcripts of autistic people talking about creative writing, or asking neurotypical and autistic people to describe what ‘creative writing’ meant to them and how it could be used. Examples of writing from people on the autism spectrum could also be usefully examined. If the scale were administered in a practical setting, it would be used as a tool to identify ways in which creative writing could be made accessible for people on the autism spectrum. The influence for this came from Harbinson and Alexander’s 2009 study into students with Asperger syndrome and the English curriculum as they identified difficulties with the imaginative and emotional interpretation of creative writing and literature as a disadvantage for students with Asperger syndrome. The identification of this using a scale could be useful for both students and teachers as broadens the concept of what constitutes ‘creative’ writing for teachers and allows students on the autism spectrum to access creative writing in a way which engages them and allows them to develop their skills.
Another interesting and more useful comparison for future research would be to do a thematic analysis of some threads about creative writing from an autism internet message forum. In this context, qualitative methods could be more useful because the research question is open and could have multiple answers or perspectives. It would also be interesting and useful to examine different sources such as conversations, internet forums, examples of writing and focus groups. Both autistic and neurotypical samples could be used to compare various approaches with a view to looking at the spectrum of different ways in which people view and engage with creative writing. It could also be expanded to include benefits and applications of creative writing.
From analyzing a thread called ‘Link between Asperger’s and creative writing’ on the internet forum ‘Wrong Planet’, there were some key themes that several people mentioned. The main themes were a difficulty with writing imaginative fiction and problems with the original ‘idea’. These could then be split into sub-themes which included difficulties with creating and writing character, abstract concepts and finding the ‘mechanics’ of writing easier than the expression. The difficulties with imagination were linked by people in the thread to theory of mind and finding it difficult to imagine another person’s perspective and this would make sense in the context of autism. Members of the forum also suggested using pre-existing characters from fan fiction or real life, or writing semi-autobiographical fiction and creative non-fiction which are all interesting ideas for writers on the autism spectrum. A quote from the thread “Don’t approach it in a typical way, because it won’t work” seems to illustrate the way in which autistic writing can be approached differently from mainstream neurotypical fiction and in a way that could be more accessible for people on the autism spectrum.
The concept of autobiography and creative non-fiction is also interesting, and links to an article by Frith and Happe in 1999 who suggested that because of the differences in Theory of Mind between neurotypical and autistic children, they may also develop a different form of self-consciousness as theory of mind skills are learnt from experience and intelligence rather than intuition which could lead to a very reflective and explicit form of self-consciousness. Writing about this in his book ‘The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome’, Tony Attwood adds that he “would agree that there is a quasi-philosophical quality” to the autobiographies of adults with Asperger’s Syndrome. This relates back to the thread from Wrong Planet where several people suggested using real life or autobiography in writing fiction, and fictionalised autobiography is another interesting area which could be used beneficially with children or adults on the autism spectrum. It could also be useful in a similar way to a special interest, where it forms an alternate world as a form of escapism or as a way to practise or experiment with different situations.
As future research, the link between autism and creative writing could be very interesting and useful, both in terms of the actual writing and possible applications in educational or clinical practice, and it’s something I’m hoping to investigate further in the future…