When yawning is catching and when it is not

When yawning is catching and when it is not

If somebody yawns it is likely that half the people nearby will probably do the same - a occurrence we call contagious yawning. However, children with severe autism miss the subtle cues that elicit collective yawning, say researchers from the University of Connecticut in a study published in the medical journal Child Development. The writers say their findings may help experts determine why people with autism find it harder to form close emotional bonds with others.

The investigators also found that individuals with milder variants of ASD (autism spectrum disorder) were more likely to yawn contagiously that those with more severe autism. They also found that most children with or without autism under the age of four years are much less likely to be contagiously yawning.

Molly Helt, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Connecticut, and the study's primary author, wrote:

This lends support to the idea that the social mind develops over time through a process of mimicry and feedback. If we can identify a lack of mimicry of facial expressions early, it could be an identifier of potential neurodevelopment disorders such as autism.

Contagious yawning is a form of mimicry, something apparently unique to humans and chimpanzees - researchers believe we acquire it over time. It is different from spontaneous yawning, which all vertebrates do. Spontaneous yawning has been observed in fetuses in the womb.

Helt's study differs from previous ones in that it included live stimulis - human experimenters - as opposed to just exposing participants to videos of people yawning. The study compared children with severe autism, children diagnosed with a Pervasive Development Disorder, and kids with neither (typically developing children).

The study was divided into two parts:

The first study - including only typically developing children

120 typically developing children aged between 1 and 6 years were recruited from local daycare centers. They sat in a quiet room facing the experimenter who sat on the other side of the room. The experimenter read a story out loud, one of four stories which depended on the age of the children, for a total of 12 minutes. During the last 10 minutes of the reading the experimenter yawned four times, and recorded (discreetly) whether any child yawned within 90 seconds. About 40% of the reading sessions were randomly recorded on video and coded by two independent raters for reliability.

If a child yawned in response to one or more of the experimenter's stimulus yawns, he/she was considered a contagious yawner. The experimenter did not include in the analysis children who were not looking the experimenter most of the time.

The authors report that children under four years of age were much less likely to engage in contagious yawning, compared to the older kids.

  • There were 20 children aged just 1 year - none of them yawned.
  • There were 20 children aged 2 years - 1 of them yawned.
  • There were 20 children aged 3 years - 2 of them yawned.
  • There were 20 children aged 4 years - 7 of them yawned.
  • There were 20 children aged 5/6 years - 8 of them yawned
Helt said:

We saw a major jump to adult levels of contagious yawning at age four. We thought that was the most surprising thing. We thought it would be quite a bit younger.

The second study - both children with autism and typically developing children This study involved 15 children with ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) and two control groups with typically developing children of the same age - a total of 28 children.

The test was identical to what was tried out in the first study.

The researchers found that:

  • Those with autism spectrum disorders yawned about half as often as the typically developing children did.
  • None of the children with severe autism got caught up in contagious yawning.
Helt believes that children with autism have a deficit in early social learning that impedes and undermines their ability to mimic the actions and emotions of others around them.

Helt added:

This lack of early mimicry could also impact feelings of psychological connection and opportunities for social learning. These changes could thus leave children with autism unable to recognize primitive socio-emotional clues that could otherwise serve to biologically and emotionally synchronize them with people around them.

The authors believe their findings may help people who work with children with ASDs develop approaches that focus more on social and emotional cues.

What is autism?

Autism is known as a complex developmental disability. Clinicians believe that Autism presents itself during the first three years of a child's life. The condition is the result of a neurological disorder that has an effect on normal brain function, affecting development of the person's communication and social interaction skills.

People with autism have problems with non-verbal communication, a wide range of social interactions, and activities that include an element of play and/or banter.

ASD stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder and can sometimes be referred to as Autistic Spectrum Disorder. ASDs are any developmental disabilities that have been caused by a brain abnormality. A person with an ASD typically has difficulty with social and communication skills.

A person with ASD will typically also prefer to stick to a set of behaviors and will resist any major (and many minor) changes to daily activities. Several relatives and friends of people with ASDs have commented that if the person knows a change is coming in advance, and has time to prepare for it; the resistance to the change is either gone completely or is much lower.

Click here to read about autism in more detail.

Source: University of Connecticut, Medical-Diag.com (archives)

"Contagious Yawning in Autistic and Typical Development"

Molly S. Helt, Inge-Marie Eigsti, Peter J. Snyder, Deborah A. Fein

Child Development Article first published online: 14 SEP 2010

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01495.x

Is Contagious Yawning Linked To Empathy Or Can You Simply Catch A Yawn? | TIME (Video Medical And Professional 2020).

Section Issues On Medicine: Psychiatry