Study Shows That Lack Of Empathy Is Not In Fact Why Autistic Children Don’t Yawn When Others Do

People sometimes yawn when they see or hear another person yawning. This phenomenon is called social yawning, something children with autism are found not to follow.

Researchers have blamed this on the struggle those with autism have with empathizing.

But a new Japanese study published in Autism Research and Treatment suggests that it doesn’t have to do with lack of empathy, but that autistic children simply miss the facial cues that make yawning contagious—such as closed eyes.

Researchers set up an experiment to determine whether autistic children look at other people’s faces often enough to be able to pick up on social yawning.

Children with autism, as well as children without autism who acted as controls in the experiment, were given eye-tracking devices to wear while watching video clips of people either yawning or remaining still.

In the first test, children were told to count how many people in the clips were wearing glasses. This ensured that they would focus on people’s eyes. The eye-tracker verified when the children’s gaze was set on the eyes of people in the video, and only then clips of people yawning were shown. In the second test, children were told to count how many of the people in the videos had beards, which caused them to focus on the mouth area, and then the yawning sequence would play.

In this way, the researchers made sure that autistic children were definitely watching people’s faces when they yawned. The results showed that children with autism responded to social yawning (yawned when the people in the videos did so) at a rate that was equivalent to the controls (those children who weren’t autistic).

These results suggest that children with autism simply don’t participate in social yawning because of their inattention to facial cues. It is not an inherent lack of empathy as previously thought, for when directed to look at faces they yawn reflexively just as much as those without autism do.


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