UC Merced Professor Rose Scott  studies how young children begin to understand the social world and all its complexities.
It happens sooner than most would think.
Babies who are three months old can begin to show they understand that people have preferences, and 18-month-olds can understand that adults can be wrong, Scott explained.
Since children at this age can't talk, Scott studies their reaction to different situations. For example, babies look at something longer when they're surprised by it. In one situation, a child watches a young girl repeatedly reach for a green toy instead of a red toy, an act that shows her preference.
When the girl reaches for the red toy, the baby's reaction is studied to see if they are surprised by the change.
As researchers better understand the cognitive and linguistic development in children, they can understand what functions are impaired by conditions such as autism, and what sort of treatments can be used to lessen the effects. Autism is characterized by a difficulty with communication and social interaction.
Scott's research is an example of UC Merced faculty members addressing real world problems with innovative research .
While studying at Boston University, Scott met someone who has autism. "It's so hard to imagine what it must be like," she explained. "I was captivated by that."
In reading up on autism, she learned there were many unanswered questions about the development of normal children, which would form the basis for better understanding autism.
Scott, who came to UC Merced last year, was drawn by the opportunity to help grow the school and its programs.
"(Establishing a new UC campus) had never been done in my lifetime and may never happen again," Scott said. "You just can't skip out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."