BEWARE OF YAWNS! Article Review: Contagious Yawning in Autistic and Typical Development

by ljammers

My research focuses on the autistic spectrum, and I spend an awful lot of my time trawling the web for interesting publications on this widely researched area. This paper is one of my favourite experiments on autism that I have come across, so I thought I would review it for The Transparent Psychologist!

It uses a novel approach to examine a subtle component of everyday social interaction, ‘contagious yawning’, and seeks to understand the emergence of this behaviour in typically developing individuals and associated impairments of this phenomena in those with autism.

Whilst the findings should be interpreted with caution, and the nature of the article is speculative, it neatly links research in a range of related areas, covering behavioural evidence, cognitive theories and possible neural substrates for contagious yawning.

Contagious yawn

Helt, M. S., Eigsti, I. M., Snyder, P. J., Fein, D.A. (2010), Contagious Yawning in Autistic and Typical Development, Child Development, 81, 5, 1620-1631.


The psychological concept “contagion” refers to the trend of a particular behaviour to spread successively through a group of individuals. Behaviours that most often elicit contagious reactions are thought to be representative of the inner states of others and signify our ability to converge emotionally with others around us. For instance, previous work has identified that babies in hospital begin to cry when they hear other babies crying (Hoffman, 1978; Simner, 1971), and that canned laughter on television programmes prompts viewers to laugh (Bush, Barr, McHugo & Lanzetta, 1989; Provine, 2000).

It has been argued that emulating another’s behaviour may be linked to neurological mechanisms involved in the development of our ability to intuit and feel the emotions of others (Rogers & Williams, 2006). Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are thought to be characterised by a deficit in cognitive empathy, whereby individuals with an ASD have problems on tasks involving ‘perspective taking’ of another’s internal state. Consistent with this hypothesis it has been found that children with ASD show deficits in imitating others (McIntosh, Reichmann-Decker, Winkelmann and Wilbarger, 2006) and are less susceptible to catching others’ contagious emotional states (Scambledr et al., 2006).

Yawning has been found to be contagious, where seeing another person yawn, thinking about yawning, reading or even hearing the word can elicit a yawn in 40-60% of healthy adults (Baenninger & Greco, 1991; Platek, Critton, Myers & Gallup, 2003; Provine, 1989). This is a particularly interesting aspect of contagious imitation, as unlike most other examples it results in large and long behavioural effects – a yawn typically lasts up to 10 seconds, and thus is an example of contagious behaviour that is easy to detect. The authors suggest that contagious yawning may be a trigger response for further behavioural imitation.

Little work has examined the developmental course of contagious yawning, or the relative susceptibility of individuals with ASD. Understanding of both typical development of (study 1), and impairment of (study 2) this phenomena may facilitate further insights into the development of social cognition.

Study 1

In Study 1 the authors examined the developmental trajectory of susceptibility to contagious yawning in typically developing children aged 1–6 years, in order to identify its emergence during development. Experimenters read stories to 120 children individually for a total reading time of 12 minutes. During the first 2 minutes of reading the experimenter did not yawn at all. In the next 10 minutes the experimenter paused to yawn on four separate occasions, and recorded if the child also yawned within the following 90 seconds. The results indicated that the frequency of contagious yawning increased substantially in children aged 4 upwards.

Study 2

In an extension of this work, the authors examined contagious yawning in 30 children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) aged 6–15. The same method described in study 1 was used. The children with a diagnosis of ASD showed diminished susceptibility to contagious yawning compared with control participants. Furthermore, children who did not meet full diagnostic criteria for an ASD, but had significant levels of symptomology, thought to represent a milder variant of autism, were more susceptible to contagious yawning than children who met full diagnosistic criteria for an ASD.


These findings are suggested to support the theory that contagious yawning is linked to social development. Furthermore, they are explored with regards to the development of involuntary and subconscious ‘‘matching’’ behaviour that we subconsciously engage in, often at an undetectable level to the naked eye or ear and emotional contagion. This work is also discussed with reference to the neural basis of contagious yawning and how this might explain the mechanisms underlying the behaviour, and differences between the control participants and those with an ASD.

Studies investigating forms of empathy and emotional convergence consistently indicate activation in the insula and anterior cingulate cortex. The authors of the present study speculate that these areas are likely candidates for distinguishing the neural activation involved in contagious yawning. Since these areas are also implicated in cognitive empathy tasks, this may explain the population differences observed in those with an ASD whom have a cognitive deficit in this ability.