Behavioural and cognitive development and differences

Behavioural and Cognitive Development and Differences

Research projects

Difficulties understanding and interacting with other people are core features of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) and autism is frequently viewed as a 'disorder of self-other relations'. Yet understanding the 'self' and 'other' is integral to social, emotional and cognitive development and functioning.

Our studies

Studies at OTARC seek to determine the nature and underlying basis of the difficulties experienced by ASD-affected children and adolescents compared to their typically developing peers. In some of our studies we found that some aspects of self and other relations seem to be unaffected. Other studies focus on how self awareness and interaction with others (caregivers and peers) affect children’s understanding of their relationships and the development of other cognitive, social and emotional abilities.

Another priority is research on how children with an ASD learn by using social cues (social learning) and how different language environments affect their learning and development. This knowledge can provide us with clues on effective ways to intervene in order to promote optimal social relationships with others and the world as well as paving the way for a better understanding of the neurocognitive mechanisms subserving social learning in children with and without autism.

Current studies

Emotional reactivity in young children with an ASD

Researchers: Heather Nuske (BPsySc Hons), Cheryl Dissanayake (PhD), Giacomo Vivanti (PhD) and Kristelle Hudry (PhD)

Study aim: Some children with an ASD do not understand and respond to the emotional expressions of other people in the usual way, which may impact upon their learning about people and objects in their environment. We are investigating the differences between young children with an ASD and typically developing children (2 to 5 years) in the way they react to:

  1. the emotional expressions of familiar people compared with unfamiliar people 
  2. briefly presented emotional expressions 
  3. others’ emotional reactions to objects in their environment.

The children participating in this study are attending the Victorian Autism Specific Learning and Care Centre and the Community Children’s Centre at La Trobe University.

For more information contact Heather Nuske hjnuske@students.latrobe.edu.au or Dr Giacomo Vivanti g.vivanti@latrobe.edu.au

Value attribution and cognition in typical development and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Researchers: Kavi Jayasinghe (BA, BSc Hons), Cheryl Dissanayake (PhD), Amanda Richdale (PhD) and Giacomo Vivanti (PhD)

Study aim: This study explores the processes by which we attribute value to our everyday experiences, and how individual differences in these processes can affect cognition and behaviour in both typical development and Autism Spectrum Disorders. In particular, he is interested in how young children with and without ASDs attribute value to non-social stimuli, and how this impacts learning and autism severity. The children participating in this study are enrolled in the Victorian Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centre at La Trobe University.

For more information contact Mr Kavi Jayasinghe ikjayasinghe@students.latrobe.edu.au or Professor Cheryl Dissanayake c.dissanayake@latrobe.edu.au

Social learning in children with autism

Researchers: Giacomo Vivanti (PhD) and Cheryl Dissanayake (PhD)

Study aim: Social-cognitive development in humans is grounded on a set of 'hardwired' skills that enable children to 1) pay attention to relevant aspects of the environment in order to make sense of other people’s behaviour and 2) incorporate the actions they observe into their own behavioural repertoire (i.e. social learning through imitation).

Difficulties in understanding and imitating the actions of others, as well as difficulties in learning, are frequently documented in children with an ASD. In this longitudinal study we are investigating the hypothesis that difficulties in interpreting referential cues conveyed by people’s faces appear to be involved in social learning difficulties experienced by children with an ASD. The children participating in this study are enrolled in the Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centre at La Trobe University.

For more information contact Dr Giacomo Vivanti g.vivanti@latrobe.edu.au or Professor Cheryl Dissanayake c.dissanayake@latrobe.edu.au