WEDNESDAY, Sept. 15 (HealthDay News) -- Children with an autism
spectrum disorder tend not to yawn "contagiously" -- that is, yawn
in response to seeing others yawn, a new study suggests.
Yawning is a type of "emotional contagion," an unconscious
response that reflects a recognition of how others are feeling. And
unconsciously mimicking the behavior of parents and others is an
important step in a child's social and emotional development, said
study lead author Molly Helt, a doctoral candidate at the
University of Connecticut.
Autistic children's lack of imitation puts them at a
disadvantage when it comes to learning empathy and other social
skills, Helt said. For example, prior research has shown that when
people see others smile, they subtly smile as well. The movement of
the facial muscles kicks a feedback mechanism into gear, lifting
"'Emotional contagion' means I get to experience a little bit of the emotion you experience," Helt said. "That gives rise to intuition, empathy and good social skills. The fact that autistic children are not yawning is a signal those basic social bonds that are forming in infants and children are not forming in children with autism."
The study is published in the September/October issue of the
In one experiment, researchers observed 120 typically developing
children ages 1 to 6 years while they listened to a 12-minute story
read aloud. The storyteller yawned four times during the
Children began "contagious yawning," or yawning within 90
seconds of seeing the storyteller yawn, at about age 4. About 35
percent of 4-year-olds and 40 percent of 5- and 6-year-olds yawned
in response to seeing the storyteller yawn; none of the
1-year-olds, 5 percent of 2-year-olds and 10 percent of 3-year-olds
In a second experiment, the researchers observed 28 children
ages 6 to 15 with an autism spectrum disorder and 63 children
without autism who were matched for age or mental development.
Again, the storyteller yawned four times.
Only about 11 percent of children with an autism spectrum
disorder yawned after the storyteller yawned, compared to 43
percent of typically developing children.
Among children with autistic disorder, a more severe form of the
syndrome, none yawned contagiously, while about 23 percent of kids
with pervasive developmental disorder -- a milder form of autism --
"Typical infants seem to be growing more emotionally attuned with others as they age, with the age of 4 being critical for that," Helt said. "Kids with autism don't seem to be becoming more and more emotionally attuned with others as they age."
The study doesn't prove that a lack of "contagious yawning" is a
sure sign of a developmental problem.
Helt also noted that it's possible that the autistic children
weren't paying attention to others around them, or they noticed the
yawns and other facial expressions but didn't know how to interpret
Geraldine Dawson is chief science officer for Autism Speaks, an
advocacy group dedicated to funding research into the causes,
prevention, treatment and a cure for autism. She said: "It is well
known that children with autism are less likely to imitate other
people. This study suggests that this difficulty in imitation
extends to very basic behaviors, such as yawning."
Intervention programs that target "imitation skills" can be very
effective in helping children with autism in their social
development, she added.
In a second study in the same issue of the journal, researchers
from the Institute of Education in London found that thinking and
perception skills of children with autism spectrum disorders can
vary substantially among individual children and can improve over
The researchers assessed the abilities of 37 children with
autism spectrum disorder and 31 typically developing children at
ages 5 to 6 years and again three years later. The study found that
not all children had the same level of weakness in each area, and
after three years, many showed marked improvement.
Most children were better able to understand others' thoughts
and feelings, and had an improved ability to regulate and control
U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and
Stroke has more on autism.
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