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Social Attention and Social Cognitive Development in Children with Autism

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Two decades of research on theory of mind difficulties support the view that the social cognitive impairment is a crucially important feature of autism. While this impairment was originally defined in terms of a ‘representational’ theory of mind, it is now described more broadly and also refers to social-attentional skills such as gaze perception, gaze-following and emotion perception. In this paper I look at the consequences of adopting this broader concept of ‘social understanding’ when we are trying to understand the problems of children with autism. Our own research suggests that if the aim is to understand the developmental origin of social attention and how this contributes to later higher-level social cognitive skills, then it is important to make a detailed analysis of these different skills and the extent to which their relationship is mediated by other skills such as language. I present evidence from a series of studies showing developmental changes in social-attentional ability in young children with autism. This contrasts with evidence that competence in social attention has already been reached by older children and adolescents of social attention. These findings, together with other research on sensory abnormalities in autism, suggests that we may need to look more closely at the impact of sensory-perceptual difficulties of all kinds (both social and non-social) early in life. These difficulties may affect social-interactional learning and the ability to acquire certain kinds of symbol knowledge. These findings are discussed within the framework of recent social orienting and social cognitive accounts of typical and atypical development.

This talk is part of the Centre for Family Research Seminar Series series.

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