When people think about autism, they often focus on strengths in logical reasoning, routines, patterns – what we think of as so-called “left brained” skill sets. But when I think about autism, I think about creativity. Research has shown significant associations between autistic traits and creativity, especially in an ability to generate novel ideas and in the area of verbal and figural creativity. This comes as no surprise to me. Across my work in facilitating groups of autistic teens, as a coach for autistic adults, and as a teacher, I see it as a theme. I see creativity as an incredible source of joy, an important tool for finding social connection, as well as a crucial component of identity, self-esteem, and self-expression for many autistic individuals.
Everyone Can Be Creative
During my graduate studies in education, I specialized in creative arts in learning – teaching through the arts. I have found the arts to be an invaluable tool for scaffolding inclusive learning environments. Bringing creativity into a lesson creates additional access points by engaging multiple intelligences, and allows students to contribute work that cannot be “right” or “wrong.” Creativity levels the playing field in many ways by taking the pressure off everyone’s contribution looking the same, and instead highlighting the unique contributions of each individual to the group. There is extensive research supporting the benefits of creative and arts-based learning environments for all children.
This begs the question: what exactly is creativity? It’s a trait researchers have found notoriously difficult to measure, possibly because we conflate it so often with innovation, generativity, and other traits as well. In school, teachers often use it in reference to a student’s ability to find multiple ways of solving problems, but that’s not it either. Creativity, as defined by most dictionaries, simply refers to the ability to come up with something new. I have seen this manifest in my classroom as a quiet autistic kid in the corner of the engineering lesson creates the most elaborate egg drop idea concept, gluing popsicle sticks and cotton balls together in a way I’ve never seen. It’s the second grader who sees our box city laid out on the carpet, and suggests a more logical city planning structure allowing all the students’ houses to be closer to their basic needs. It’s every student’s work when our class self-portraits are cubist, because there is no wrong answer, and every colorful, geometric face is unique. I believe everyone has the capacity to be creative, and that creativity can enhance everyone’s life and growth.
Connecting Through Creativity
Across my general teen groups, I’ve found that bringing creativity into an interaction is also a key component to successfully crafting a social situation. A typical Zoom icebreaker I use is an excellent example of this. If I were to ask every group member about their insecurities, it would not go well. But if I ask what their ideal superpower would be, I get an array of different answers, and reasons behind them that help us all learn more about each individual. One teen says they want the power of invisibility, because they want to be able to show up to social situations without expectations; another asks for the ability to read minds, because they’re constantly trying to figure out what others are thinking – can the group relate? There’s a freedom within this open-ended model, to be creative and express oneself with less pressure to conform.
I currently facilitate a group of autistic teen artists & makers, which aims to do just this, creating a social context for connection around creativity. Every week, I log into a Zoom room alongside a dozen or so teenagers from around the country, and we share digital space and make things. Our meetings begin with a check-in and opportunities to share what we’re working on. We play games like Gartic Phone, a collaborative pictionary game where teens can share humor through art and creative wordplay. There is also work time where we are simply making art. I have received feedback that this group works for some teens who have never found a support group they liked before. I think it gives so much room for members to participate on their own terms, since everyone shows up from the start with comfort in their chosen medium. Many members share interests, artistic influences, and mediums, and we’ve done exercises like noticing elements of each other’s artistic style, and trying to incorporate an idea from another’s work into a piece. The model inherently values each member’s individuality and leaves endless possibilities for ways each person can show up and contribute in a meaningful way.
Creativity as a Roadmap
In my work as a LifeMAP coach, many of my clients are creatives. I’ve worked with writers, poets, bookmakers, musicians, painters, illustrators, and multiple podcast producers. As I learn more about these passions, I develop a deeper understanding of each individual’s strengths and motivations. When executive functioning and other life tasks are difficult, these creative hobbies are something to fall back on, to put work into more easily and renew confidence in the ability to follow through on goals. Setting small goals relating to such interests can be powerful in building oneself up to be able to do the dishes. And, similar to a creative block, much of coaching and work with autistic clients is problem-solving creatively to figure out where exactly a person is stuck, and how to find a way out to a place of more possibility.
Often my work involves exploring questions alongside clients, such as: “Why isn’t creativity more valued in our society?” and “How can I find a way to share my creative skills and use them in my work?” Our society does value neurodivergent and creative thinkers – so many high profile, successful creative people are now coming out as autistic. At the same time, the systems in place do not always guide neurodivergent individuals to successfully find a place to contribute their creativity and skills to the world. I am grateful everyday for my job which allows me to be a part of this process for many individuals.
M.Ed. Lesley University
B.A. Smith College
Elena Rossen (they/them) is an artist, musician, educator, and coach based in Somerville, MA. They work as a LifeMAP coach as well as a facilitator of numerous social/support groups for teens at AANE. While at AANE, they piloted a group for autistic teen artists and makers, as well as one for trans, gender-nonconforming, and gender diverse teens. An educator by training, Elena also continues to work as a freelance curriculum developer and educator. They have a deep passion for supporting neurodiverse individuals in accessing the tools and skills they need to reach their full potential. They also serve as a research affiliate at the Center for Autism Research and Education (CARE) at UMass Lowell.