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Kids with Autism ‘Catch’ Yawns If Prompted to Look at Facial Features

Study counters idea that lack of empathy is why people with ASD fail to mirror yawns; implications for behavioral therapy
September 19, 2013

Infectious yawning is a near-universal experience. Several studies have shown that individuals with autism don’t readily “catch yawns.” This led some researchers to blame an autism-related lack of empathy.

A new study, published in the journal Autism Research and Treatment, suggests a different reason: Children with autism tend to miss out on “social yawning” because they’re not looking at facial cues.

However, these same children will “catch” a yawn if prompted to look at a person’s eyes or mouth, the researchers found.

Implications for therapy
The finding is more than a quirky observation. It has implications for therapies that prompt children with autism to look at facial expressions when interacting with others.

“So much of early brain development depends on social interaction,” comments Donna Murray, senior director of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (AS-ATN). “This may be why early intervention programs that promote attention to social cues such as facial expressions appear to promote the typical development of both brain and behavior.”

Teasing out what’s happening
In the new study, Japanese researchers set up an experiment to determine whether children with autism would catch a yawn if they were looking at the areas of the face that change during yawning.

First they fitted 26 children with autism and 46 typically developing children with eye-tracking devices while they watched videos of people yawning or remaining still. To direct the children’s gaze, the researchers asked them to count how many people were wearing glasses. In a similar test, they asked 22 children with autism and 29 typically developing children to count how many people in the videos had beards.

When focused on either the eyes or the mouth area, around 30 percent of the children with autism yawned in response to the videotaped yawns. This rate was no different from that of the other children.

The researchers concluded that it’s not lack of empathy but inattention to facial cues that’s behind the lower rates of yawning seen in earlier autism studies. 

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