This study is the first to report the
disturbance of contagious yawning in individuals
with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Twenty-four
children with ASD as well as 25 age-matched
typically developing (TD) children observed
video clips of either yawning or control mouth
movements. Yawning video clips elicited more
yawns in TD children than in children with ASD,
but the frequency of yawns did not differ
between groups when they observed control video
clips. Moreover, TD children yawned more during
or after the yawn video clips than the control
video clips, but the type of video clips did not
affect the amount of yawning in children with
Current results suggest that contagious
yawning is impaired in ASD, which may relate to
their impairment in empathy. It supports the
claim that contagious yawning is based on the
capacity for empathy.
INTRODUCTION Contagious yawning (i.e.
yawning triggered by perceiving others' yawning)
is a well-documented phenomenon (e.g. Lehmann
1979; Provine 1986, 1989; Anderson & Meno
2003; Platek et al. 2003), but surprisingly
little is known about the mechanisms underlying
it. Contagious yawning is reported in humans and
in only a few other primates such as chimpanzee
(Pan troglodytes; Anderson et al. 2004) and
possibly in stumptail macaques (Macaca
arctoides; Paukner & Anderson 2006), even
though spontaneous yawning is widespread among
vertebrate species (Baenninger 1987).
Some authors argue that contagious yawning
is a response to an innate releasing mechanism
(Provine 1986, 1989), whereas others claim that
it is based on the capacity for empathy (Lehmann
1979; Preston & deWaal 2002; Platek et al.
2003). Although various neurological or
psychiatric disorders are known to cause
abnormal patterns of spontaneous yawning (Daquin
et al. 2001), no study has tested whether a
neuropathology causes contagious yawning to be
impaired. We predicted that individuals with
autism spectrum disorder (ASD) would have
impaired contagious yawning. ASD is a pervasive
developmental disorder, which severely affects
social and communicative development (America
Psychiatric Association 1994), including empathy
(Baron-Cohen et al. 2005; Blair 2005).
If contagious yawning is related to the
capacity for empathy, then it is possible that
individuals with ASD, who have impairment in
empathy, show the disturbances in contagious
yawning. In addition, a recent neuroimaging
study (Schu¨ rmann et al. 2005) reported
that observation of others' yawning and
susceptibility to yawn in response are related
to the activity of the superior temporal sulcus
and periamygdalar regions. Since structural
abnormalities of these regions are reported in
ASD (Schumann et al. 2004; Zilbovicius et al.
2006), they should show disturbances in
contagious yawning. However, to date, there are
no empirical studies that systematically
investigated contagious yawning in ASD.
The aim of this study is to assess the
contagious yawning of children with ASD, using
video clips of yawning as stimuli. Children at
or over the age of 7 years participated in the
study because Anderson & Meno (2003)
reported that children older than 4 years
reliably show contagious yawning. In addition to
the yawning video clips, control video clips of
mouth-opening action were also presented to the
participants. If the children with ASD have
disturbances specific to contagious yawning,
observing yawning videos should elicit less
yawning in children with ASD than in typically
developing (TD) children, while the amount of
yawning should not differ between groups during
or after the observation of control videos.
DISCUSSION This study is the first to
demonstrate an impairment in contagious yawning
in children with ASD. During or after the
observation of a video of a yawning adult,
children with ASD yawned significantly less than
TD children. This cannot be attributed to the
overall differences in the frequency of
spontaneous yawning because the amount of
yawning did not differ between groups during or
after they observed mouth-opening, control,
videos. In addition, the results of typically
developing TD children replicated a previous
study (Anderson & Meno 2003) that TD
children yawn more during the observation of
others' yawning than other mouth movements.
However, others' yawning did not modulate the
frequency of yawns in children with ASD.
To the best of the authors' knowledge, this
is the first report to demonstrate that a
neurodevelopmental disorder can lead to an
impairment specific to contagious yawning, and
not spontaneous yawning. Since atypical
development of empathy is reported in ASD
(Baron-Cohen et al. 2005; Blair 2005), current
results support the claim that contagious
yawning and the capacity of empathy share common
neural and cognitive mechanisms (Lehmann 1979;
Preston & de Waal 2002; Platek et al.
To further examine the involvement of
empathy in contagious yawning, it will be
important to investigate whether contagious
yawning is impaired in other 'empathy disorders'
(Preston & de Waal 2002) such as
psychopathy, prefrontal damage or front-temporal
dementia. One might argue that impaired
contagious yawning in ASD relates to the
dysfunction of the mirrorneuron system (MNS), as
is their imitative impairment (Ramachandran
& Oberman 2006). However, this argument
needs to be treated with caution.
For example, Schürmann et al. (2005)
did not find selective activation of Broca's
area, the essential component of MNS (Rizzolatti
& Craighero 2004), during observation of
others' yawning. It suggests 'the non-imitative
nature of the yawn contagion that can occur
without detailed action understanding'
(Schu¨ rmann et al. 2005, p. 1264).
Individuals with ASD are known to fixate more to
the mouth than to the eyes when watching dynamic
facial stimuli (e.g. Klin et al. 2002). Since
the perception of the eye region of yawning
people is a potent stimulus for yawn contagion
(Provine 1989), it is possible that less
fixation to the eyes of yawning stimuli may
impede the contagious yawning in children with
Further studies will be beneficial to
examine whether the atypical pattern of face
fixation contributes to the impairment in
contagious yawning. As mentioned above, little
is known about the mechanism and development, as
well as the function, of contagious yawning.
Further studies are required to investigate the
relation between contagious yawning and other
symptoms of ASD, such as empathy, imitation
and/or face fixation. In addition, further
studies will be beneficial to explore the
developmental course of contagious yawning in
ASD. Although we did not find any effect of age
or IQ in the current age group, it is still
possible that chronological or mental age would
affect the manifestation of contagious yawning
in other age groups. These would be fruitful
lines of research, not only in order to clarify
the mechanism and function of yawning, but also
to better understand the nature of social and
communicative impairment in ASD.
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