Imagining Counterfactual Worlds in Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Two experiments are presented that explore online counterfactual processing in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) using eye-tracking. Participants’ eye movements were tracked while they read factual and counterfactual sentences in an anomaly detection task. In Experiment 1, the sentences depicted everyday counterfactual situations (e.g., If Joanne had remembered her umbrella, her hair would have been dry/wet when she arrived home). Sentences in Experiment 2 depicted counterfactual versions of real world events (e.g., If the Titanic had not hit an iceberg, it would have survived/sunk along with all the passengers). Results from both experiments suggest that counterfactual understanding is undiminished in adults with ASD. In fact, participants with ASD were faster than Typically Developing (TD) participants to detect anomalies within realistic, discourse-based counterfactuals (Experiment 1). Detection was comparable for TD and ASD groups when understanding could be grounded in knowledge about reality (Experiment 2), though the 2 groups used subtly different strategies for responding to and recovering from counterfactual inconsistent words. These data argue against general difficulties in global coherence and complex integration in ASD.

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