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Autism Research and Treatment recently published a Japanese study that Scientific American examined this month looking closely at science of a simple yawn, and it’s contagion.
It can be caused by tiredness, stress, and watching other people yawning, a phenomenon known as social yawning, but yawning is contagious. However, autistic children, are immune to this contagion.
Researchers believe that shared behavior, a form of empathy exhibited by many social groups, strengthens the bonds between animals and humans in their social circle, with the predominant form of communication between higher mammals (monkeys) being grooming.
Social yawning causes yawning in concert with one another. Chimpanzees yawn in response to the yawns of baboons. Dogs respond to the yawns of humans.
Consequently Children with autism do not respond to social yawning and some researchers feel that this is because autistic children struggle with empathy.
Because they avoid looking at people’s faces, children with Autism miss those signs and cues. It may not explain it entirely. A small 2009 study found that developing children will yawn even if they have only heard another person yawn, but children with autism do not.
Researchers, in the new study, set up two experiments to determine if children with autism look at others’ faces enough to catch a social yawn.
For the first test, while wearing eye tracking devices, 46 control children and 26 children with autism watched video clips of people yawning and people remaining still. They were asked to then count how many people in the clips were wearing glasses to make sure they looked at the people’s eyes. The video showed the person yawning only when the eye tracker verified that the children had fixed their gaze on the eyes.
In the second test, 29 control children and 22 children with autism watched video clips and were asked to this time count how many of the people in the videos had beards. The yawning sequence played only when the children focused on the mouth area.
About 30 percent of the children, with autism yawned in response to the videos of yawning people. This was a rate equivalent to that of the children in the control groups. This suggests that a lack of social yawning is not due to a lack of empathy in children with autism, but more along the lines of their inattention to facial cues. As in these experiments, when prompted to look at faces, their behavior is the same as the behavior of the children in the control groups.
Researchers indicate further study is necessary with a larger test group, including tests on adults and children diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic.
For more information, please visit http://blog.hear-our-voices.org/category/autism-spectrum-disorder/