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Affiliated institutions: University of Kent

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Description: Understanding counterfactuals- hypothetical events that are counter to reality- can be cognitively effortful because people need to keep track of both factual and counterfactual events, and flexibly shift between these alternatives. We report an event-related potentials experiment that tests whether autistic adults are able to maintain and switch between counterfactual and factual versions of the world in the same way as typically developing adults. Participants (N=48) read two sentence scenarios that set up a factual or counterfactual scenario, followed by a second sentence that described a consequence of this event. The second sentence either maintained the counterfactual world or switched back to the factual world, and included a critical word that was either consistent or inconsistent with this context. Results revealed that when the context maintained either a factual or counterfactual world, participants showed appropriate detection of the inconsistent critical word (i.e. more negative-going N400 for inconsistent vs. consistent). In contrast, when participants were required to switch from a counterfactual to factual world participants, they initially experienced interference from the counterfactual context (i.e. N400 consistency effect was non-significant), then later favoured the factual interpretation of events (i.e. appropriate N400 consistency response). Crucially, none of these effects were modulated by group. These results demonstrate that autistic adults are able to track linguistic input in real-time, and can appropriately use complex contextual cues to maintain and/or update mental representations of counterfactual and factual events.


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