Project I: Infants at Risk

Infant Studies
Pitt Early Autism Study for Infants

Where Infants Look When Watching Faces

Background Information

During the last few decades there has been an incredible increase in our understanding of how mental or cognitive development occurs throughout the first two years of life. The Infant and Toddler Development Center (ITDC) has conducted critical research on many of these important issues. It is now known that prior to language infants are already actively learning about their worlds. Through interactions with both people and objects, babies are making discoveries about the physical properties of their environments (e.g. objects exist even if you don’t see them)how to categorize objects (e.g. what are dogs versus cats) and how to remember and recognize familiar people.

Evidence suggests that autism begins within the first year of life. In order to both diagnose the disorder early in life and to understand its impact on development, we are studying babies who are at-risk for having the disorder because they have an older sibling already diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.


What We Want To Learn

Most research on autism has focused on the social difficulties individuals with autism encounter. Much less attention is being paid to underlying differences of how individuals with autism think. Our work is focused on the cognitive development of individuals with autism as well as how gaining motor skills relates to babies’ development of communication and language. Based on our previous research with typically developing infants and young children, we know that there are a number of important abilities that develop very early and help guide the way children learn about both objects and people.


How We Do This

All of our studies involve relatively easy behavioral tests. The children are told stories while watching a computer monitor and then are asked to answer some very simple questions. Our infant research procedures require the baby to look at pictures and movies while we watch their eyes and record where they are looking. A new “state-of-the-art” eye tracker allows us to record precisely where the child is looking at a picture by having video cameras focus on the f
. We will also videotape babies reaching for and playing with toys and a caregiver. Our nonverbal methods allow us to study very young children who have just been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, who are nonverbal or not yet speaking in sentences.


Preliminary Findings

The research is being conducted on infants who are at risk for developing autism in hopes that it may lead to the ability to diagnose autism within the first year of life. This may allow us to better understand how the disorder impacts development from the earliest ages. The ITDC has published some of the first research showing that infants are able to categorize objects, a skill critically important to learning words and language. We have also learned that infants have a rudimentary knowledge of quantities, a knowledge that ultimately helps children understand how to count and learn mathematical knowledge. Finally, we have conducted research on how infants learn to remember f
s and distinguish familiar people from strangers. As we better understand these developmental differences between children with autism and typically developing children, our lab will work to establish interventional approaches to help improve the cognitive abilities of children who have autism.

Webster Hall, Suite 300, 3811 O’Hara Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 • Toll Free 1-866-647-3436 • Phone 412-246-5485 • Fax 412-246-547
All Inquiries including Dr. Minshew: autismrecruiter@upmc.edu
© 2006 CeFAR at the University of Pittsburgh