Yawning Not Contagious for Children with Autism

Posted on September 25, 2013

Boredom, tiredness, hunger and stress can all set off a yawn. People can even 'catch' a bout of yawning when they see or hear another person in the throes of the involuntary gesture, a phenomenon known as social yawning.

Researchers speculate that this shared behavior is a form of empathy that strengthens the bonds of a group: One drowsy person’s yawn that triggers others to do the same could lead to a unanimous call for bedtime, for example. Humans aren't the only species to yawn sympathetically: Dogs yawn in response to human yawns, and chimpanzees and baboons yawn in concert with one another.

Children with autism apparently don’t respond to social yawning, however, prompting some researchers to blame their well-chronicled struggle with empathy.

A new Japanese study suggests that, instead, children with the disorder miss facial cues, such as closed eyes, that make yawning contagious.

Overall, about 30 percent of the children with autism yawned in response to the videos of yawning people — a rate equivalent to that of controls. This suggests it’s not an inherent lack of empathy in children with autism that’s to blame for their lack of social yawning, but rather their inattention to facial cues. When they are directed to look at faces, as in these experiments, they behave just as controls do.

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Category(s):Autism spectrum disorders

Source material from Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative