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Thinking about What Isn't True: Influences of Context, Processing Style and Emotional State On Reasoning Among Children with Autism

Friday, 3 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
R. McKenzie, Plymouth University, Plymouth, United Kingdom
Background: The evidence for the ability of children with autism to reason about what is not true in real life is mixed. For example, Scott, Baron-Cohen and Leslie (1999) claim that children with autism can reason with content that is contrary-to-fact, whereas Leevers and Harris (2000) found performance on similar problems was at chance levels. This study seeks to address this question by presenting contrary-to-fact and counterfactual problems with everyday content to children with autism. Previous mixed findings suggest that children with autism may be able to reason with contrary-to fact problems in certain cases, but not others. Children with autism are known to commonly experience negative affect and to be detail-based in their thinking style. Both of these factors have been shown to influence reasoning performance. We, therefore, explore whether children with autism can reason with contrary-to-fact and counterfactual material and the influence of contextual information, detail-based processing style and emotional state on their performance.


  • To establish whether children with autism can reason with empirically false material
  • To investigate the influence of context, processing style and emotional state on reasoning performance

Methods: 25 children between the ages of 7 and 16 years with high-functioning autism and 25 control children, matched on age, gender and IQ, took part in the study. The children were presented with contrary-to-fact and counterfactual reasoning problems, either embedded in a story context, or with basic instructions. Children were also given a measure of affect (The positive and Negative Affect Scale) and a measure of detail based processing (the Embedded Figures Task)

Results: Initial results suggest that children with autism are able to reason with empirically false material, but the typical facilitation of story context is not present. Emotional state has no significant bearing on reasoning performance. Detail-based processing is related to the ability to take account of context.

Conclusions: Children with autism are able to apply given rules when thinking about statements that are not empirically true. For the typical population the use of a fictional context is widely used to support this kind of thinking. Such approaches are not beneficial for all children with autism. For children with autism, the usefulness of using fictional scenarios to support reasoning with empirically false material may depend on their individual processing style. These findings have important implications for educational practice.

Leevers, H. J. & Harris, P. L. (2000) Counterfactual Syllogistic Reasoning in Normal 4-Year-Olds, Children with Learning Disabilities, and children with Autism. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 76, 64-87.

Scott, F. J., Baron-Cohen, S. & Leslie, A. (1999) ‘If pigs could fly’: A test of counterfactual reasoning and pretence in children with autism. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 17, 349-362.

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