The Frontal Cortex

Yawning and Autism

Yawning is famously contagious. Except that is, if you’re autistic. Here’s Mindhacks:

The study showed that children with autism were far less likely to yawn in response to watching others do the same.

Often, autistic social difficulties are put down to a problem with ‘theory of mind’ the ability to understand other people’s beliefs, intentions and desires, but it’s not clear that contagious yawning relies on this.

The researchers don’t have any easy answers for why yawn contagion is reduced in autism, but suggest, without committing, that known differences in viewing faces, possible differences in mirror neurons or problems with imitating others might be linked.

And here’s a link to the paper. I was just thinking the other day, “Gee, it’s been a while since someone has invoked mirror neurons…”


  1. #1 Ted
    September 10, 2007

    That’s an interesting little variation on the notion that autistics don’t make the same thing of social cues that the rest of us do. Are you familiar with the autism is a deficit of the “mirror neuron system” theory? Mirella Dapretto and Lindsay Oberman are the two people I know of who have published on the subject.

  2. #2 kim
    September 15, 2007

    Fun, because Aspies (Asperger Syndrome) do have the yawning reaction, which would indicate that it is more substantial different from autism than most think!

  3. #3 mhogan
    December 11, 2008

    Speculation alert: what about the cerebellar deficit? The cerebellum is known to participate in monitoring and maintenance of processes that are typically unconscious or on the fringe, like maintaining posture (remember what Head said about posture) or factoring in social cues that don’t make it to awareness. Autistics are known to have cerebellar deficits. Could it be that the information from peripheral parts of the visual field that shows a yawn is correlated and “tagged” as a yawning act in the cerebellum, and that when this information is distributed throughout the cortex (especially to motor neurons) it primes, much like lexical priming, the motor patterns for yawning? Alternatively, the information could go directly from the cerebellum through the hindbrain/brainstem to afferent motoneurons, in the same way that it continuously updates posture.

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