Carnegie Mellon University

In the Mind of a Child

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Research Reveals Early Signs of Autism

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Children are fascinating to watch, from the first sneeze all the way to the first step. But what interests Carnegie Mellon psychologist David Rakison most is what they're thinking.  

"Studying babies is like studying the Big Bang of cognition," said Rakison. "You start to see the building blocks of cognition coming into being and taking shape."

Armed with the knowledge of how healthy children develop, Rakison observed autistic 3-year-olds at play hoping to determine early signs of the disorder.  The study revealed that preschoolers with autism lag behind their peers in distinguishing between living and non-living objects.

Rakison is one of the first researchers to study these conceptual differences in very young children as the possible basis for the social and cognitive challenges in older children and adults with autism.

"Diagnosis and treatment of autism at an early age is crucial to the best outcome," said Cynthia Johnson, director of the Autism Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and Rakison's collaborator. "This study opens the door to further research that could aid us in the development of possible diagnostic tools and therapies."

Rakison has co-edited two books, Early Category and Concept Development and Building Object Categories in Developmental Time.

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