Becky Stancer



Reasoning from all knowledge and belief is an adaptive approach to thinking about the world. It has been robustly shown that conditional ‘if then’ reasoning with everyday content is influenced by the background knowledge an individual has available. If we are presented with the statement ‘if it rains, then John will get wet’ then we are told that it is raining and asked if John will get wet, we may consider a number of possibilities before answering the question; perhaps John has an umbrella or is sheltered from the rain. Hence, when engaged in conditional reasoning of this sort people typically draw on background knowledge to arrive at an informed response. People with autism tend not to process information in context. There is a wealth of evidence indicating that these individuals have a piecemeal rather than an integrative processing style. It was therefore hypothesised that adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) would be less influenced by background knowledge when engaged in conditional reasoning with everyday content. Adolescents with ASD showed a weak or absent effect of available background knowledge on reasoning outcomes compared to a typically developing control group. This finding was demonstrated in two separate conditional reasoning tasks. These results were not explained by a failure to generate background knowledge or by differences in the beliefs held by the two groups regarding problem content. Within the typical population a lack of contextualised reasoning was also found among participants with high scores on one particular autistic trait, attention to detail. The ability to integrate all relevant information during conditional reasoning was also found to be dependent on available working memory resources. These results extend the known domains which demonstrate a lack of contextualised processing in autism. They also show that for individuals with autism reasoning without regard for background knowledge stems from a failure to integrate information. The findings suggest that this failure is related to the cognitive demands of the task and the processing style of the individual.

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