Autism and Contagious Yawning

Although we begin to develop a yawn reflex while still in the womb, yawning is a condition that begins to occur more often after seeing another person. According to research, contagious yawning begins to be observed after the age of 5 years. Like all other behaviors, yawning plays a role in creating and maintaining social bonds.

Besides being a natural response of the body, yawning can also be triggered by a social situation. Yawning triggered in social situations is not a condition that can be observed in individuals with autism. They just can’t catch social yawning from the people surrounding them.

Even though it is not very clear yet according to researchers, social yawning is more related to empathy. Therefore, in a way, yawning is a situation that strengthens the social bonds of the group. On the other hand, empathy is a condition that individuals with autism lack. Lack of empathy also causes social yawning not to be observed in people on the spectrum and causes individuals with autism to be isolated in social environments. In short, it can be said that yawning required a certain level of empathy that individuals on the spectrum lack.

A lot of research has also been conducted on social yawning as well. According to these results, it has been observed that children with autism do not respond to social yawning, and it has been found that they think that every person who yawns is sleepy. Researchers claim that children with autism cannot understand and imitate mimics and facial expressions that make yawning contagious because of their lack of empathy. As a human, once we interact with another person, it is unavoidable to catch their mimics and facial expressions that again individuals on the spectrum lack.

In addition to all these, individuals with autism prefer to stick to the behaviors they typically exhibit and are resistant to any change, big or small, in their daily activities, which may cause them to be unable to exhibit contagious yawning.

The absence of contagious yawning is not an indication of a developmental problem found in individuals with autism. It is just a consequence of a lack of empathy. Since individuals with autism do not pay attention to the people around them or cannot interpret their facial expressions, contagious yawning is not observed in them.

Why Do We Yawn?

Yawning is an involuntary reflex, opening the mouth wide and filling the lungs with plenty of air. The air is then slowly exhaled. In the meantime, the eardrum will stretch and the eyes may water. A person usually needs to yawn before, after sleep, or while doing hard boring tasks. We often yawn when we are tired, sleepy, or bored; our heart rate also rises rapidly during yawning. This increase in heart rate can be a sign of alertness, not sluggishness. On the other hand, yawning can also be a way of showing that the state of the body has changed.

It is unavoidable that people yawn. Like human beings, there are other species and animals yawning even including vertebrate animals. Even though every person yawns, it doesn’t have to be contagious. Not everyone imitates yawning from others. Studies show that more than half of the human population yawns when they see or read about a yawn. It doesn’t have to be in real life, people yawn even when seeing a photo of another person yawning. Contagious yawning occurs in animals as well. However, it does not work as it does in human beings. Up to this time, researchers have proposed many theories as to why we yawn.

Have you ever seen someone yawn and immediately do the same thing? Yawning is truly contagious. Contagious yawning has three triggers which are seeing someone yawn, seeing a picture of a yawn, and hearing a yawn. Contagious yawning is believed to have a social meaning and is more prominent in similar groups. For example, you may be less likely to yawn when you see your dog yawn or when you see someone yawn while walking down the street. Because your social sharing is not equal or close. It is also believed that children younger than 5 years old do not experience contagious yawns due to their lack of early socialization skills.

Some researchers support the idea that yawning is an empathic function. And they have done research on this as well. They tested this hypothesis by identifying populations with a reduced tendency to yawn, such as those with autism and schizophrenia. They observed that the schizophrenic patient tended to yawn more when they were in a healthy state of mind. On the other hand, social yawning is observed less in individuals with all levels of autism.

Another theory is that yawning is caused by the social and non-verbal communication of your state of mind. It is often associated with yawning, boredom, and lethargy and is therefore considered disrespectful in social settings. It can also mean hunger and mild stress. Pay attention the next time you yawn – what could be causing your yawn?

What Is Contagious Yawn and Why Does It Occur?

Yawning is not like other consistent reflexes. Interestingly, many people agree that yawning is contagious. Science also wonders why yawning is contagious. There are many different theories on this subject. One of them is empathy with the other person. If we think that he is sleepy and put ourselves in his shoes, we yawn too. It happens more especially in people close to us.

When we see a person yawn, we unconsciously empathize with them. We make the same move as if we are their reflection, and we cannot avoid it. This suggests that the ability to interpret how others are feeling will lead us to put ourselves in their shoes or feel the same way, even with such “primary” actions. As a result, when you see someone else yawn, you can’t stop yourself from doing the same. That’s why it is called contagious yawning.

Some studies that try to explain why yawning is contagious refer to the activation of certain brain circuits of empathy. These are circuits that contain mirror neurons which are responsible for many other activities in our brains. These neurons act as internal reflexes of the movements we observe in other people around us.

The most acceptable explanation of contagious yawning, which is also considered social yawning, can be accepted with the relationship between yawning and social empathy. When we accept this explanation, it is inevitable that yawning is very rarely observed in some psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. Contagious yawning is absent or less observed in individuals on the autism spectrum, supporting the idea that contagious yawning is based on the understanding of empathy. In addition, it is found in another study that schizophrenia patients had a significantly lower yawning rate. This suggests that the susceptibility to contagious yawning is also reduced in patients with social empathy disorder.

Contagious yawning is highly unlikely in children with autism who have poor or no imitation skills. It is a form of social imitation that does not develop in children with autism. Contagious yawning is not observed in these children, who cannot empathize and imitate the others around them. These results are supported by studies on brain images. It is not surprising that this situation occurs for individuals with autism, whose difficulties and abnormalities in understanding the world are known.

It is often thought that autistic children do not yawn due to a lack of empathy, and there are some studies in this direction. However, some other studies have shown that this is not the case. It has been determined that the reason a child with autism is immune to social yawns is that these children miss the facial cues that trigger contagious yawns.

In the contagious yawning experiments, it was thought that looking at the eyes would trigger more yawning than looking at the mouth, but the results showed that both conditions gave the same results. This suggests that there may be another factor that was not measured in these experiments. It has been demonstrated that avoiding eye contact is not the only cause of contagious yawning.

Empathy and Autism

Empathy is when a person puts himself in the other person’s shoes and understands his feelings and thoughts. It is to experience the other within oneself. In this way, the other ceases to be just an object, absorbs it, and identifies with it.

According to research on infants, we are all born with an innate ability to empathize, but at the same time, we quickly lose this ability under unfavorable conditions. Individuals with autism cannot empathize. They have trouble understanding emotions because they have trouble seeing from other people’s perspectives. That’s why when someone is upset, they don’t know exactly what is going on and how to act.

So Why Can’t Individuals With Autism Empathize?

In our brain, there are mirror nerve cells in Broca’s area. These nerve cells directly reflect the movements of the people around us to our brains and allow us to imitate them. Special codes are created for each movement. These neurons also provide cognitive and emotional input. Observing the behavior and emotions of the other person creates these inputs. In short, we can say that mirror cells are responsible for empathy. In individuals with autism, these mirror neurons do not work exactly as they are supposed to work. This leads to a lack of empathy in them. We can say that this physical impairment in the brains of individuals with autism is responsible for the lack of empathy.

We can momentarily imagine the thoughts and feelings of another person and feel things that make them uncomfortable. This leads to empathic interest, that is, a compassionate response that will care about the person in front of us. The thing that best defines empathy is the multi-featured human capacity that allows us to understand the plight of others or the feelings of those people.

When individuals show empathy towards others, they are successful in understanding their feelings, learning about them, and reacting to them correctly. Neuroimaging studies on empathy show that even if we can’t fully connect with the person in front of us, we are affected in the same way by imagining the person’s experiences and emotions, and activity is observed in the same regions of our brains.

A person on the autism spectrum does not have the ability to empathize. Therefore, they cannot understand the perspectives of others and have difficulties in both social and emotional communication. Examples of such atypical social reactions are the inability to make eye contact and inappropriate facial expressions. These situations make it difficult for them to communicate. As a result, they are excluded and isolated from their childhood. Autism, common enough to be observed in one in 70 children, causes a person to live socially disconnected and lack empathy. A person with autism cannot understand the expression of emotions reflected on the face and has a limited perspective.

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