The link between ADHD, autism, and creativity

Plenty of misunderstanding still exists about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

We hear a lot about these issues related to school and education. If you have a child with one of these diagnoses, school can be tough. You know your child’s unique talents, but they don’t always get a chance to shine in a standardized classroom environment.

Creativity is one area where many kids with ADHD, and even autistic kids, really excel. While these two conditions have some overlapping symptoms, they are very different for both children and adults.

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Creativity and ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder. It’s characterized by impulsiveness, inattention, and trouble being still. People with ADHD have brains that are wired differently than people without the condition. Certain areas of the brain are not connected in the same ways to other areas of the brain. This leads people with ADHD to perceive the world differently — to learn and process information differently.

About half of the kids with ADHD also have a learning disability, such as dyslexia. These challenges can sometimes obscure the strong creativity that people with ADHD have.

An article in Scientific American summarized a variety of research indicating that people with ADHD are more creative than people without the disorder. In one study, students with the disorder had much higher creative cognition than students without. Working memory, the ability to control attention and maintain multiple streams of information, was lower in students with ADHD. However, lower working memory tended to correlate with higher creativity.

More research has found the same to be true for adults. People with ADHD generally excel at coming up with new ideas and proposing “out of the box” solutions. They score lower on coming up with the perceived “correct” answer.

Autism and Creativity

It has often been assumed that autistic people are less creative than non-autistic people. However, more understanding of how the autistic mind works is debunking this myth. Autistic people can have original, unique ideas.

For example, when asked to provide a list of alternate uses for a pen, an autistic person may come up with fewer responses, but more of those responses will be unique.

Autistic people are often viewed as less creative because they tend to be less imaginative. Their solutions are likely to be based in reality over fantasy, unlike children with ADHD, who tend to also be highly imaginative.

However, developing unique responses is still a key to creative reasoning, and any nontraditional way of thinking lends itself to creative solutions.

With a push toward standardization and “correct” answers, sometimes autistic kids (and adults) or those with ADHD can be overlooked. They have a unique way of taking in information and understanding patterns that leads to highly creative approaches.

You don’t outgrow ADHD or autism: Find ways to manage the challenges while enjoying the gifts. Learn more at the UPMC Behavioral and Mental Health Services website.

About UPMC

A $21 billion health care provider and insurer, Pittsburgh-based UPMC is inventing new models of patient-centered, cost-effective, accountable care. The largest nongovernmental employer in Pennsylvania, UPMC integrates more than 90,000 employees, 40 hospitals, 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient sites, and a 3.8 million-member Insurance Services Division, the largest medical insurer in western Pennsylvania. In the most recent fiscal year, UPMC contributed $1.4 billion in benefits to its communities, including more care to the region’s most vulnerable citizens than any other health care institution, and paid more than $500 million in federal, state, and local taxes. Working in close collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, UPMC shares its clinical, managerial, and technological skills worldwide through its innovation and commercialization arm, UPMC Enterprises, and through UPMC International. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside on its annual Honor Roll of America’s Best Hospitals and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. For more information, go to