The Next Piece of Autism Puzzle: Yawning?

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Nicole Anthony understands the challenges of raising a child with autism. Her 13-year-old son, Miyka-El, has a milder form of the condition.

She said one of his biggest problems is responding to other people in social situations.

"Children with autism miss out on those social cues that other children will pick up on and pay attention to," she said.

Miyka-El has doesn't even do seemingly mundane things, like yawn in response to someone else yawning, which is something most people do unconsciously.

"Something like that won't affect him. He's in his own world, and if you're doing what he's not interested in doing, he's not going to pay attention," she said.

According to a small new study, Miyka-El Anthony isn't alone. A group of researchers found that children with autism were about half as likely as non-autistic children to mimic someone yawning.

The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Child Development, also found that children with a milder form of autism yawned in response to someone else yawning more often than children with more severe autism. Researchers also discovered that responding to contagious yawning happens significantly more often starting at age four.

Experts say these results add another piece of understanding to the autism puzzle. While they're unsure about whether these findings have any practical application, they agree that learning about autistic children's inability to respond to something as simple as a yawn says a lot about what the disorder really is.

"It's a great example of exactly how pervasive the challenges are that individuals on the autism spectrum have to face," said Susan Wilczynski, executive director of the National Autism Center in Randolph, Mass. "This deficit in social awareness is so severe that it affects something as minute and neurologically based as contagious yawning."

Lead researcher Molly Helt, a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, decided to focus on contagious yawning after discovering that her own autistic son didn't mimic her when she was trying to get him to yawn to unclog his ears while on a plane.

Contagious Yawning, Other Cues May Point to Empathy

She said the results are consistent with a common belief about children with autism.

"Kids well beyond the age of four or five seem not to be becoming emotionally attuned, missing some cues that bind us all together," said Helt.

"We know that it's a general rule that humans are wired to recognize emotion and respond to it, and children with autism tend not to feel it as much or feel it in a different way," said Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Other autism experts agree, and add that understanding the response to certain cues, such as yawning, is vital to understanding what's behind the key facets of autism.

"[A]lthough yawning in and of itself may not signal any particular strong emotion, the tendency to yawn when others do appears to be part of a larger ability to respond emotionally in a similar way to those around us," said Lori Warner, director of the HOPE [Hands-On Parent Education] Center at Beaumont Hospital in Berkley, Mich.

"Early differences in attending to and responding to [nonverbal] behaviors may be related to the development of core symptoms of autism," said Laura Silverman of the University of Rochester Medical Center's Department of Pediatrics in Rochester, N.Y.

Despite Limitations, Study Can Lead to Promising Research

Helt acknowledged several of the study's limitations, among them the small sample size of 123 participants. She also said that it's difficult to determine whether the failure of children with autism to mimic yawning is due to the fact that they tend to focus on people's mouths, whereas yawning contagion stems from a focus on the eyes.

But she said the study can still prove beneficial to future research.

"Contagious yawning might be able to be some kind of marker for some other clinically important neurological characteristic," she said.

"Looking at what the neurological underpinnings of contagious yawning are may be something that can be identified by brain scans at an early age," said Wilczynski. "This study gives us something to pursue that line of research more intensely."

That gives hope to mothers like Nicole Anthony, who hopes the study can help shed more light on the darkness that is autism.

"Maybe it will lead us to someplace else and some new understanding," she said.