Certain Behaviors (Yawn) Not Contagious for Kids With Autism, Study Says

Filed under: In The News, Special Needs, Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers


"A yawn is quite catching, you see, like a a cough. It just takes one yawn to start other yawns off." -- "Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book"

Dr. Seuss was right. Almost.

Yawns can be contagious, but children with autism, it seems, don't start yawning just because other people are doing it.

A new study, published in the latest issue of the journal Child Development, suggests autistic kids are too busy following the beat of their own drummer to get caught up in other people's yawning.

The study's lead author, Molly Helt, a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut, tells Business Week yawning is a "social contagion," an unconscious recognition of how other people are feeling.

Unconsciously mimicking the behavior of others is an important step in a child's social and emotional development, she adds. Put simply, mindlessly doing what everyone else is doing is how we learn to be human beings.

But autistic children often stink at conformity. While this may make them colorful little characters, they often have trouble developing social skills and, in some cases, empathy.

For most of us, the social game of monkey-see-monkey-do isn't tough. In fact, Helt tells Business Week, it's mostly subconscious.

Smiles are also contagious, Helt tells the magazine. When one person in a room smiles, suddenly you have a roomful of grinning zombies smiling for no particular reason. But at least they're happy zombies.

The movement of the facial muscles kicks a feedback mechanism into gear, Helt says, making you just a bit more cheery.

Researchers had a storyteller read to children ages 1 to 6 and yawn four times. Only about 11 percent of the autistic kids started yawning, while 43 percent of the other kids joined the yawn fest.

"Emotional contagion means I get to experience a little bit of the emotion you experience," Helt tells Business Week. "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."

Related: Voice Recordings May Help Identify Autism, Study Says

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.