A new study has reported that children with autism often fail to yawn contagiously (yawning upon seeing someone else yawn).
Yawning contagiously is an ‘emotional contagion’. The yawn is triggered unconsciously, and is a recognition of how the people around are feeling. Molly Helt, lead author of the study, said: “Unconsciously mimicking the behavior of parents and others is an important step in a child’s social and emotional development.” Helt is a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut.
“Children with autism lack of imitation puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to learning empathy and other social skills,” Helt added.
Previous research has indicated that facial expressions are triggered in humans when we acknowledge them in others. For example, when a person sees another person smile, they too slightly smile. This unconscious response then lifts a person’s mood.
To conduct the study, the authors gathered two groups of children, one group with autism and the other without. A storyteller then read a twelve minute story out loud, yawning four times throughout the reading. Roughly 11% of the children with autism yawned in response to the storyteller, whereas 43% yawned in response out of the other group. Out of the children who have more severe forms of autism, none yawned.
“‘Emotional contagion’ means I get to experience a little bit of the emotion you experience. 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,” Helt said.