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Autistic Children Don't Seem to Yawn 'Contagiously'
Date:9/15/2010

By Jenifer Goodwin
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 15 (HealthDay News) -- Children with an autism spectrum disorder tend not to yawn "contagiously" -- that is, yawn in response to seeing others yawn, a new study suggests.

Yawning is a type of "emotional contagion," an unconscious response that reflects a recognition of how others are feeling. And unconsciously mimicking the behavior of parents and others is an important step in a child's social and emotional development, said study lead author Molly Helt, a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut.

Autistic children's lack of imitation puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to learning empathy and other social skills, Helt said. For example, prior research has shown that when people see others smile, they subtly smile as well. The movement of the facial muscles kicks a feedback mechanism into gear, lifting mood.

"'Emotional contagion' means I get to experience a little bit of the emotion you experience," Helt said. "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."

The study is published in the September/October issue of the journal Child Development.

In one experiment, researchers observed 120 typically developing children ages 1 to 6 years while they listened to a 12-minute story read aloud. The storyteller yawned four times during the reading.

Children began "contagious yawning," or yawning within 90 seconds of seeing the storyteller yawn, at about age 4. About 35 percent of 4-year-olds and 40 percent of 5- and 6-year-olds yawned in response to seeing the storyteller yawn; none of the 1-year-olds, 5 percent of 2-year-olds and 10 percent of 3-year-olds yawned.

In a second experiment, the researchers observed 28 children ages 6 t
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