The Creative Aspect of Autism Spectrum Conditions

A few years ago, a research study to understand the impact of autism conditions on creativity found an unexpected result. Researchers found that while people on the autism spectrum come up with fewer responses to divergent thinking problems (e.g. different ways to use a paper clip), the responses are more original than the neurotypical population. 

The most common advice given for productive brainstorming —  to come up with lots of ideas which increases the chance of coming up with original ideas — doesn’t seem very relevant for this group. It appears that some of the characteristics of the autism conditions confer an advantage when it comes to creative thinking. As the researchers found, “…when fluency was statistically controlled for, people with high levels of autistic traits were more likely to produce unusual novel responses. This would be a potential cognitive advantage for creative problem solving.”

So why does this happen? 

One possible explanation lies in how we store and process information. Our brain is an associative engine, where all the concepts we know are stored as nodes interconnected through links. These links can be of different types and strengths. When we think of one idea, the next thought most likely to pop into our head is the idea that has the strongest connection to the first idea. For example, someone allergic to strawberries might have a strong ‘cause-effect’ link between “strawberry” and “rash”. Everytime they hear the word “strawberry” they might immediately think of a rash.

For most people, thinking of a concept leads to hopping from one node to the next strongest connected node in one train of thought. This phenomenon, also called falling into an ‘associative-rut’, is what leads to the initial set of fast, not-so-original ideas during brainstorming.

However, for those with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) it is possible that there isn’t one strong associative path to go down, and instead other paths are equally visible. In proposing the hyper-systemizing theory of autism, researchers noted that what appears as slow processing to an outsider might be due to the massive amounts of information being processed. An interviewee with Asperger’s syndrome explained his thinking as: 

“I see all information in terms of links. All information has a link to something and I pay attention to these links. If I am asked a question in an exam I have great difficulty in completing my answer within the allocated 45 min for that essay, because every fact I include has thousands of links to other facts, and I feel my answer would be incorrect if I didn’t report all of the linked facts. The examiner thinks he or she has set a nice circumscribed question to answer, but for someone with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, no topic is circumscribed. There is ever more detail with ever more interesting links between the details.”

The above description also provides a clue on why people with ASC come up with fewer but more original ideas. They ‘see’ more information which increases processing speed, but at the same time this ability makes it easier to avoid going down the routine path. 

In a similar vein, a study on verbal creativity found that people ASC generate more creative metaphors compared to neurotypical populations (e.g. “Feeling worthless is like offering a salad to South Americans”), while comprehension of conventional metaphors was similar between the two groups. The authors conclude, “Our results suggest that adults with ASD can create unique verbal associations that are not restricted to previous knowledge, thus pointing to unique verbal creativity in ASD.” 

ASC needs to be viewed more as a cognitive style, as opposed to a deficit. These differences in how information is processed has demonstrated several advantages, including superior ability in certain aspects of creative thinking. 

Inventor Spotlight: Nivedha Naren

Our featured student inventor is Nivedha Naren, who designed an interesting school supply. Her idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. 

Here is Nivedha talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Nivedha Naren. I am a 4th grader at Albert Einstein elementary Quest program. I love reading fiction and it takes me into a dream world. I love art, math and science – especially when they can go together.

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention is called a “Penyon”. It is a combination of a mechanical pencil and crayon especially made for artists. This contraption has the standard mechanical pencil on one side and slots on the other side where you can put crayons. You can get your choice of colored crayon at the press of a button. When not used, it helps store all your crayons safely in one place.

What inspired you to develop this invention?

In my after school, we had a large bin full of crayons that kids used on a daily basis. Most of the time, crayons were either broken or lost.  Also I found it hard to select the color I wanted from this large bin full of crayons. When I am doing my art, I always alternate between pencil and crayons. On many occasions, I have spent time searching for my pencil at different places.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

I made a model of my contraption using construction paper. I made a cylindrical object from the construction paper along with a cone tip for the mechanical pencil. I then used different colored construction papers to resemble the crayons. I glued them on to the back of the pencil to create a ‘ model’ of my contraption. It was not a working prototype but a model. I ideated the working of the button based on the simple idea used in ballpoint pens – i.e. a button with a spring action to push the crayon. I initially thought of having one button per slot to select the crayon but then drew inspiration from a multi-colored pen to have only one color selected.

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

I loved MindAntix camp because it helped in bringing out my creative side. We were encouraged to think out of the box and share ideas. We always make our own things such as a full fledged puppet show where we designed the puppets from scratch. 

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

I am inspired by many scientists and social workers. But recently i read about Ann Makosinski who became an inventor at the age of 15.  She invented a flashlight powered by body heat. I felt it was a great invention because it solved a very practical problem.

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

I am very passionate about the earth and our environment. I am awed by the great colors around us. I want to solve problems that are destroying nature. I want to preserve the nature around us and its colors for our future generations to enjoy.

How will you use your prize money? 

Gosh.  I haven’t made any plans yet.  But I want to save 70% of the money for my future education and I will make some plans with the rest of the money. Perhaps, I will buy a pet tortoise!

Congratulations Nivedha for winning the award! We hope you get to play with your pet tortoise soon.

Building the 4Cs During Remote Learning

The rising infection rates in the current pandemic is forcing many school districts across the nation to start with a remote learning model in Fall. For teachers who had primarily taught in person earlier, structuring their learning to fit the new model can seem like an intimidating task. 

Beyond the challenges of understanding how to use technology tools effectively for instruction, there is an additional risk. 21st century skills like creativity, critical thinking or collaboration, might not get enough attention which will impact students’ overall development. These skills aren’t built in isolation. Instead, students develop these skills while interacting with their peers and teachers. 

So, how do we ensure that students continue to build these crucial skills when learning occurs in a remote fashion?

Community of Inquiry

Effective remote learning requires the development of healthy communities as outlined in the community of inquiry framework. Three essential elements – teaching presence, social presence and cognitive presence – interact dynamically in the learning process.

Cognitive presence is the extent to which learners are able to construct meaning through reflection or dialog. Social presence is the ability of participants to bring their unique personalities to the community so others view them as “real people.” Social presence directly impacts social emotional learning (SEL) and indirectly supports cognitive presence when learners discuss ideas with each other. Teacher presence has two important roles – to design the content and activities for learners, and to facilitate the social and cognitive presence to achieve learning goals. 

The framework also applies to 21st century skills and the figure below shows how the 4Cs map to the framework. 

Communication and Collaboration

The first step in designing an effective remote learning experience is to set the right climate by focusing on healthy communication and collaboration. A good climate powers the social and cognitive presence and improves learning outcomes. Here are some tips to improve communication and collaboration among students: 

  • In a remote setting, students don’t get an opportunity to get to know their peers in an organic fashion. This is especially true for students new to the class or school. Consider incorporating opportunities where students share about themselves – their hobbies, likes/dislikes etc. You can also create time for students to simply chat with each other for a few minutes at the beginning or end of your remote session. 
  • Have students come up with rules of engagement for group discussions. These rules can include ensuring everyone takes turns, assigning roles, and critiquing ideas respectfully. Assigning one person to monitor the discussion and explicitly call on people who haven’t had a chance to speak is another way to ensure all voices are included. 
  • Collaboration can also be enhanced by using technology effectively. We found high engagement when students were collaboratively editing a document while being able to talk to each other through video conferencing. Students who were shy in group conversations were able to offer more ideas by simply editing the document, and more ideas got incorporated as a result. 

Creative and Critical Thinking

Creativity and critical thinking can be weaved into both discourse and content. Here are some tips to incorporate these skills into learning:

  • Open-ended projects, that are both minds-on and hands-on, provide an opportunity for students to build creative and critical thinking. A well designed project includes opportunities for students to explore ideas, exercise different cognitive thinking patterns like associative or analogical thinking, self-evaluate ideas and solutions, and iterate if necessary. Projects that use simple materials can easily be implemented in a remote setting. 
  • When students reflect on the topic before having group discussions, the outcome is better. For brainstorming ideas, the quality and originality of ideas is higher when students first think of ideas on their own before bringing them to the group. The creativity of ideas is further enhanced when students try to build on each other’s ideas (using improv’s “Yes, and” approach). Similarly, when students first research a discussion topic on their own, they are able to bring more facts into the group discussion and improve critical thinking outcomes. 

In-person instruction is effective as the core element of social presence occurs naturally. However, intentionally incorporating social aspects that build a healthy community and promote meaningful dialog can make remote learning equally powerful. 


The original and longer version of this article was first published on edCircuit

What should learning look like when schools reopen?

Over the last few months schools and teachers have had to drastically change teaching and adapt in real time to school closures. As summer approaches and schools start planning for the next year, they are yet again faced with the possibility of full or partial closures. However, the pandemic is also giving us an opportunity to try different models of learning that can be beneficial even in the long-term. 

Covid-related school closures have created a situation where in-person interaction has become a precious resource. Maintaining adequate physical distance, temperature screenings, and frequent deep cleanings are all adding a significant expense to normal day-to-day interactions that we had come to take for granted. We now need to treat classroom time as a precious resource―by conserving it and using it mindfully where it’s most effective. For example, a teacher giving a lecture to a classful of students is not a good use of classroom time as students could do that just as well remotely. 

The most effective way to structure learning would be to prioritize classroom time for building skills that require interaction and can’t be developed in isolation, while leaving individual work for offline.

Skills that need active interaction time with peers and teachers primarily fall under the 21st century skills umbrella – skills like creativity, critical thinking or collaboration. So it makes sense to “flip” learning along the boundary of 21st century skills and academic content. Here are some activities that would benefit most from in-person time, where the teacher plays the role of a coach or facilitator in helping students develop critical skills. 

Creativity and Collaboration

A key thinking pattern that underlies creativity is associative thinking―the ability to combine different ideas into something meaningful. When students discuss and build on each other’s ideas toward a common solution, they are exercising their associative thinking. The same skills also build healthy collaboration – instead of students trying to compete with each other to make their idea “win”, they try to include everyone’s ideas as best as they can. Teachers can help build these skills by observing how students interact with their group members, and guiding them to include all voices and focus on joint problem solving. 

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is when an individual improves the quality of their thinking by applying intellectual standards. It includes underlying skills like reasoning, evaluating, analyzing, judging, inferencing and reflecting. 

Socratic questioning and classroom discussions are a good way to discuss open-ended issues and build critical thinking. Critical thinking can be done both online or face-to-face, but there are differences. In online discussions students tend to use more evidence based reasoning as they can research before making their argument, while in face-to-face mode students listen to other ideas more and expand on them due to the spontaneous nature of the discussion. A blended model that capitalizes on the advantages of both models, can be a useful way to build critical thinking.  

Project Based Learning

Project based learning provides an avenue for students to be engaged in active, real-world problem solving. For students to gain most from PBL, they have to encounter and struggle with key concepts and skills behind the project. They build their thinking and knowledge in an experiential manner as they actively problem solve, by themselves or within a group.

The pandemic is causing significant disruption to the learning process and will require restructuring of lesson plans to address additional closures. Prioritizing 21st century skills for in-person classroom time can help stimulate students to think, engage in discussions, stay connected with their peers and learn from them. 

The full version of this article appeared on edCircuit

3 indoor activities to build creativity

With current school closures and approaching summer holidays, most parents are worried about the impact of extended breaks on learning for their children. While most of us associate academic work with learning, there are many different ways for children to learn and build crucial skills during these times. Students learn as much, if not more, from play and social interactions than with pure academic work. 

Here are three different ways to stretch your child’s thinking and build cognitive skills like creativity and critical thinking, in a much more stress free way.

Reframe challenges as opportunities

One powerful way to build an innovation mindset is to reframe problems as opportunities that are just waiting for a creative solution. The easiest way to find problems is with day to day activities and chores that children engage in. 

Ask your child what activities and chores they find inconvenient and how can they improve that experience. When posed as a challenge, children can come up with clever ideas. One of our students, who found cleaning his pets’ cages gross, came up with a clever idea of a new kind of trash bag with drawstrings all around that can be used to line the cage. When you need to clean the cage, you just have to pull the drawstring and all the mess gets caught in the bag.  Another student came up with the idea of a remote controlled mechanism to take out regular trash so you don’t have to carry a stinky bag for a long time. 

While not all ideas will be immediately helpful, it helps children to start thinking of problems as opportunities that they can find clever solutions to.   

Join the imaginary play

Young children can spend, what often feels like, an inordinate amount of time in imaginary pretend play. However, pretend play is also a child’s cognitive playground – where they can freely practice how to think and problem solve in different situations – and in the process build a deeper understanding of the world around them. 

In more elaborate forms, pretend play can grow into fantasy worlds or paracosms, where a child constructs an entire imaginary world with its own rules and systems. Michele Root-Bernstein, Professor and creativity scholar, found that engaging in building fantasy worlds as a child was indicative of creative accomplishments in adulthood. Highly renowned people across different disciplines like the Bronte siblings, Nietszche and Mozart invented imaginary worlds, as did a large number of MacArthur genius award recipients. She believes that the creativity involved in building fantasy worlds, equips children with skills like imagining, empathizing, modeling, problem solving and rule-breaking that are essential for any creative work. 

Pretend play and paracosms also provide an opportunity for parents and other family members to help stretch their child’s thinking. You can join your child in their fantasy world and co-create situations that need to be addressed or problems that need to be solved. In doing so, you give them a safe space to experiment with ideas while building a deeper understanding of society. 

Add counterfactual thinking to reading time

The benefits of reading books with your child, from cognitive to social emotional are well known. In a study designed to understand the effect of reading in toddlers, children were assigned to an intervention group or a control group. The intervention group received age appropriate books and additional reading time compared to the control group. The results of the study showed that families in the intervention group that did shared reading with their toddler groups, and not just reading aloud, showed significantly larger vocabulary scores compared to the control group. 

Parents can give an additional boost to shared book reading times by adding counterfactual thinking, which builds both creative and critical thinking. Save some time after reading a book together to discuss the book and pose additional questions. You can create different counterfactual questions by modifying or adding an event in the story or by changing characters and settings. For example, what would have happened if Dumbledore never gave Harry Potter the cloak of invisibility, or what would the story of Snow White look like in modern times? Sharing your ideas to the same prompts after your child shares theirs can help improve their ability to think in more diverse ways.  

The original version of this article appeared on edCircuit

We’ve partnered with Belouga to grow creativity globally!

Our popular How To Be An Inventor course has been selected to join Belouga’s collection of educational resources and is now available to educators and students around the world through this global learning platform. Belouga provides students and teachers with meaningful learning experiences, sourced from the most reputable learning organizations across the world. Belouga’s mission to build community and foster curiosity makes them a perfect partner to build an innovative mindset in students all over the world.  

Technological advances like AI are making routine jobs redundant and radically changing the nature of our workforce. Jobs that require creative problem solving are growing, while predictable jobs decline sharply. It’s not surprising that LinkedIn’s data shows that creativity is the top most skill employers look for. Now more than ever our educational system needs to adapt in ways that foster creativity instead of stifling it. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, noted psychologist and expert on creativity, puts it succinctly, “In the Renaissance creativity might have been a luxury for the few, but by now it is a necessity for all.

Our approach, reflected in our How To Be An Inventor course, is to build underlying thought patterns, like associative or reverse thinking, that lead to creative ideas. The course takes a hands-on, minds-on approach to learning and engages students to think both creatively and critically. Over the last few years, we have run different versions of the course and have had several of our students win national level awards for their ideas! Needless to say, we are excited that students and educators all over the world can now access the course through Belouga and build critical 21st century skills.  

The course is available on Belouga as a five-part series to fit within the platform’s collaborative online learning environment. It provides more than two and a half hours of content to increase creativity and innovation for students globally. 

About Belouga

Belouga was founded in 2017 with the mission of making education impactful and accessible on a global scale through peer-to-peer and classroom connection, communication, and collaboration. Realizing the rapidly changing landscape of technology and education, the Belouga team looked to create a central location, which takes the heavy lifting out of global education, and provides teachers and students with a personalized learning experience through community and content without sacrificing creativity or curriculum needs. Learn more at https://belouga.org/ 

See the full press release here

Inventor Spotlight: Ayana Bharadwaj

Our featured student inventor is Ayana Bharadwaj, who came up with an interesting concept to make educational games more accessible. Her idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. 

Here is Ayana talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Ayana and I am in 10th grade. I enjoy playing the piano and doing Taekwondo. In school, I enjoy the STEM field. I want to become a computer scientist. 

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention is a website that hosts educational board games that are easy to download, print and play for anyone. My goal was to make board games accessible for anyone in the world, so they can not only have fun but also learn in the process. These games have been designed by me and other students – it’s been fun for us to design the games and we hope that it’s fun for other children who play these games. 

What inspired you to develop this invention?

I noticed that many board games we had at home were also educational in some way. That made me realize that learning for a lot of us comes not only from schools but also from other games and activities that we participate in. However, for many people in this world education is a luxury, and many parents can’t afford to send their kids to school let alone get them games to help their education. By making these games free and printable, my hope is that kids with very few resources will be able to benefit. 

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

My prototype did work. The Google Site could be easily navigated and the games on the site were well liked among the test subjects. It was rewarding to see others appreciate the effort after working hard on developing not only the site but the individual games.

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

One thing I learned was the principle of Jugaad invention, or frugality. Basically, taking something that we use in our daily lives and trying to make it in the cheapest possible way, to benefit others who may not be able to afford those. 

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

My favorite inventors are the Wright Brothers because flight seemed something of fantasy, but they designed a functioning glider. They also exemplify the frugal mindset – they didn’t have the same kind of money and resources as others who were working on making flying machines. Yet, they used their creativity and perseverance to be the first ones to demonstrate flight. 

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

I want to solve problems that make things more equitable for everyone. I want to continue finding interesting ways to make things more affordable for others.

How will you use your prize money? 

I haven’t decided yet but I might use some of the money to help bring these games to students who need it most.

Congratulations Ayana for winning the award! We wish you the best in your future creative endeavors.

Inventor Spotlight: Nora Redmond

Our featured student inventor this time is Nora Redmond. Nora designed a cool board game along with her sister, at one of our camps held in collaboration with the Archimedes School. Their idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. 

Here is Nora talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Nora Redmond. I’m in 5th grade. My favorite subject in school is math. My favorite animal is called an Okapi. 

What is your invention and how does it work?

Our invention is a board game. It can be played by 2 or more players. Each person uses a 3D printed game piece. First they roll the dice. Next the player will move their 3D printed game piece the number of spaces forward as the dice shows. After this, the player picks up a card. Each card has a picture of an endangered animal on it along with an action which states the animals names and tells the player another action to take. Some examples of what the cards say are: skip a turn, a giraffe ate your map, and on the bottom a fun fact such as: did you know a giraffe’s heart is 30 times the size of a human one. This helps teach players about endangered animals, and maybe help them to help the animals. The next player then follows the same steps.

What inspired you to develop this invention?

My favorite animal is Okapi: a type of endangered animal. Not many people know what an Okapi is. I thought we could raise awareness of Okapis and other endangered animals. We decided to have cards with actions, photo and facts about the endangered animal.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

Our prototype worked and was fun to play with, which was great. 

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

I learnt how to 3D print objects which might come in handy in the future. I learnt how to research and look up facts.

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

My favorite inventor is Jane Goodall. She discovered how alike chimpanzees are to humans.

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

I want to work on environmental issues such as climate change and conservation.

How will you use your prize money? 

I will save my prize money up for when I go to college.

Congratulations Nora for winning the award! We wish you the best in your future creative endeavors.

Inventor Spotlight: Tara Redmond

Our featured student inventor this time is Tara Redmond. Tara designed a fun board game along with her sister, at one of our camps held in collaboration with the Archimedes School. Their idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. 

Here is Tara talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I’m Tara Redmond. I am in 8th grade. My favorite subjects in school are math and science. I like coding and working with computers. When I grow up I think I would like to be a computer scientist.

What is your invention and how does it work?

Our invention is a board game. You have to get the pieces from the start to finish. There are cards that have directions on it along with interesting facts about endangered animals. 

What inspired you to develop this invention?

We were inspired by interesting animals that most people have never heard of. We incorporated those animals into our board game.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

When we first made it, it worked pretty well. Then we made more cards to make the game more interesting.

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

I learnt how to brainstorm ideas and I also learnt how to use a 3d printer, which was really fun.

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

My favorite inventor is Grace Hopper. She invented the world’s first compiler for computer language. 

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

One of the reasons why I want to become a computer scientist is because you have to think and solve problems by using your brain. That is something I hope to do in the future.

How will you use your prize money? 

I got $50 in prize money and I am saving it to use when I am older.

Congratulations Tara for winning the award! We wish you the best in your future creative endeavors.

Inventor Spotlight: Sachita Ghosh

Our featured student inventor this time is Sachita Ghosh, who designed an interesting board game at one of our camps, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School. Her idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. 

Here is Sachita talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Sachita Ghosh. I’m in 6th Grade Quest at Timberline Middle School in Redmond. My favorite subjects are Science and Music. During my free time I like to build puzzles and games. My dream job is to be an architect!

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention is a board game called “Inventors and Architects”. In the game, you trade for resources such as Wood, Rock, Metal, Brick etc. Then you leverage these resources to build cities and shops, there by collecting points. In addition, there are challenge cards which give you extra points and make it more fun. These add an element of surprise in the game, making the game more interesting, and they also enable you to develop different strategies to win. 

What inspired you to develop this invention?

I used my love of games and building things to create something really fun. Leveraging 3D printing to make actual game pieces was a very creative way to put together my love of games and building.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

My prototype did work. When others tried my game they said they liked it and thought it was fun and creative. That experience was one that I will never forget, because I enjoyed creating the game and then watching people have fun playing it.

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

I learned how to design an object using an online tool and then 3-D printing those objects out. I also enjoyed learning about how the 3-D printers worked. We also played several games which helped me look at games from the viewpoint of a creator. The camp taught how to be creative and think outside the box. By leveraging technology and creativity, I could create something that others could have fun with.

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

Leonardo Da Vinci is one of my favorite inventors. His ideas were far ahead of his time and he had many varied interests from art to architecture to science to mathematics. He is truly inspiring!

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

I would really like to help solve problems related to poverty and homelessness. No one in this world should have to suffer or have problems, and I would like to come up with creative solutions to help address these problems.

How will you use your prize money? 

I plan to use this money to buy materials for my future builds. I will also put away some of it to donate to a cause.

Congratulations Sachita for winning the award! We wish you the best in your future creative endeavors.