Contagious Yawning: A Marker for Autism

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Recently published in the September/October issue of Child Development (Volume 81, Nuber 5, Pages 1620-1631), Molly Helt, Inge-Marie Eigsti, Deborah Fein of the University of Connecticut and Peter Snyder of Brown University showed in their article their research regarding yawns and using yawns as a marker for Autism. 

That's right, yawns.  Why yawning?  Because it is what is called an automatic emotional reciprocity behavior, or in other words a way of participating in society's complex emotional environment.  But, unlike many other methods of showing empathy, yawning is a fixed action pattern that is hidden, and once started cannot be stopped.  It's a lot like watching a chain reaction. 

So what is so special about yawns?  Well, children in early years (under the age of 4) often do not yawn contagiously, meaning if someone starts to yawn, they don't yawn in response.  After the age of 4 that starts to become more common, and soon children are participating in the group emotional response of empathetic yawning. 

Unless the child has Autism.  Unlike neuro-typical children, most children with Autism do not participate in contagious yawning, though the cause is unclear.  They also do not participate in most other facial mimicry while watching others (whether on television or in person).  These sort of missed queues make it difficult for a person with Autism to be welcome within a generally social environment. 

So why even bother with yawning?  Because it could be an indicator for Autism without looking for genetic markers in blood (painful), or running MRI scans (scary for children).  The only drawback:  late detection.  You cannot hope to get a positive identification before age 5, by which time many of the benefits of Applied Behavior Analysis has been missed. 

But still, this is just one more piece of the puzzle that helps fill out the behavioral aspects of Autism, and for that I applaud these find researchers.  I recommend reading the research yourself to get a better view of the impact of this research, and what still needs to be accomplished.  Assuming, of course, you can stop yawning, as even reading (or writing, for that matter) the word can cause the fixed action pattern to trigger.  ^_^