Catching a yawn
Yawning is widely done but poorly understood. There is spontaneous yawning and there is contagious yawning. Now new research suggests that contagious yawning may be a useful tool in diagnosing conditions like autism.
Spontaneous yawning is done by all vertebrates and has even been observed in human foetuses in the womb as early as twelve weeks. A favoured current theory, although highly debatable, is that we yawn spontaneously in order to lower the temperature in our brain. Even if this is the case, it is an entirely different scenario to contagious yawning.
Contagious yawning is a social phenomenon. It is a form of mimicry that is apparently unique to humans and chimpanzees and it is learned over time. When one person in a group yawns it is likely that half the people present will do the same. This is because we pick up subtle social cues and mimic as a kind of bonding.
New research however, shows that children with autism do not contagiously yawn.
The research involved exposing children aged between one and six years old to yawning. The results showed that children with autism spectrum disorders yawned about half as often as did â€œnormallyâ€ developing children. None of the children with severe autism got caught up in contagious yawning.
This is probably because children with autism disorders have a deficit in social learning that makes it difficult for them to pick up and mimic the actions and emotions of the people that they are around. This might result in the autistic child being â€œdesynchronisedâ€ from their social group.
The most positive thing about this discovery is that if we can identify a lack of facial mimicry early in children it might be an indicator of neurological development problems and early interventions can be planned.