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Autism and Contagious Yawning

While the communicability of the yawn is not one of the most pressing issues in modern medicine, scientists still have few clues about why it happens.

A small boy hiding under a desk

Photo: foeversouls (Flickr)

A small boy hiding under a desk

Most people have experienced the phenomenon of a “contagious” yawn.

One person in the room yawns, and suddenly the urge to follow suit takes hold of you as well, even if you aren’t tired. Before long, the yawn has passed from person to person around the room. In fact, you might be fighting the urge to yawn just reading about it.

While the communicability of the yawn is not one of the most pressing issues in modern medicine, scientists still have few clues about why it happens. Some discoveries, however, may begin to unravel this perennial puzzle.

Beginning with the premise that yawning is a social behavior, one study examined the relationship between infectious yawning and the ability to establish an empathetic connection with others. Researchers studied responses to yawning stimuli in a group of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a condition known to impair the ability to empathize.

They compared these responses to those of another group of children without autism. In the study, both groups were shown a film that depicted some individuals yawning and others simply opening their mouths. The children without autism responded to the yawning faces with yawns of their own more than twice as often as their autistic peers. A control experiment in which researchers counted yawns in both groups of children without exposing them to the film yielded similar results.

Researchers hope to use these findings to develop further studies on the neural links between empathy and infectious yawning. Eventually, we may know more not only about the phenomenon of the traveling yawn, but also about autism and the ways in which the brain processes social cues.

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