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Imagining counterfactual worlds in autism spectrum disorder

Black, J., Williams, David M., Ferguson, Heather J. (2018) Imagining counterfactual worlds in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 44 (9). pp. 1444-1463. ISSN 0278-7393. E-ISSN 1939-1285. (doi:10.1037/xlm0000500) (KAR id:59626)


Two experiments are presented which 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 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 two groups employed 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.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1037/xlm0000500
Uncontrolled keywords: Counterfactual reasoning, autism, eye-tracking, reading, anomaly detection
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Psychology
Funders: Leverhulme Trust (
Depositing User: Heather Ferguson
Date Deposited: 12 Dec 2016 09:56 UTC
Last Modified: 12 Jul 2022 10:41 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Black, J..

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Williams, David M..

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Ferguson, Heather J..

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