Presence of Contagious Yawning in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Department of Cognitive and Behavioral Science, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan.
Autism research and treatment 07/2013; 2013(4):971686. DOI: 10.1155/2013/971686
Source: PubMed


Most previous studies suggest diminished susceptibility to contagious yawning in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, it could be driven by their atypical attention to the face. To test this hypothesis, children with ASD and typically developing (TD) children were shown yawning and control movies. To ensure participants' attention to the face, an eye tracker controlled the onset of the yawning and control stimuli. Results demonstrated that both TD children and children with ASD yawned more frequently when they watched the yawning stimuli than the control stimuli. It is suggested therefore that the absence of contagious yawning in children with ASD, as reported in previous studies, might relate to their weaker tendency to spontaneously attend to others' faces.

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    • "Because this result coincides with the prediction that empathy is more likely to occur between familiar subjects than between stranger subjects, people have considered that yawn contagion is an empathydependent response, and they have even used yawn contagion as a type of ''biological marker'' of empathy (Campbell and de Waal 2014). However, recent studies have challenged the connection between yawn contagion and empathy (Usui et al. 2013; Bartholomew and Cirulli 2014) and suggested that alternative mechanisms might be involved. "
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    • "Such interplay between gaze perception and the decision to make (or not) eye-contact is analogous to the reciprocity of the social signals mediated by the cingulate cortex (Amodio and Frith, 2006). Indeed, the duration of eye contact is a strong predictor of facial-expression reciprocation in monkeys (Mosher et al., 2011) and in humans (Usui et al., 2013). "
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    ABSTRACT: Facial expressions reflect decisions about the perceived meaning of social stimuli and the expected socio-emotional outcome of responding (or not) with a reciprocating expression. The decision to produce a facial expression emerges from the joint activity of a network of structures that include the amygdala and multiple, interconnected cortical and subcortical motor areas. Reciprocal transformations between these sensory and motor signals give rise to distinct brain states that promote, or impede the production of facial expressions. The muscles of the upper and lower face are controlled by anatomically distinct motor areas. Facial expressions engage to a different extent the lower and upper face and thus require distinct patterns of neural activity distributed across multiple facial motor areas in ventrolateral frontal cortex, the supplementary motor area, and two areas in the midcingulate cortex. The distributed nature of the decision manifests in the joint activation of multiple motor areas that initiate the production of facial expression. Concomitantly multiple areas, including the amygdala, monitor ongoing overt behaviors (the expression itself) and the covert, autonomic responses that accompany emotional expressions. As the production of facial expressions is brought into the framework of formal decision making, an important challenge will be to incorporate autonomic and visceral states into decisions that govern the receiving-emitting cycle of social signals.
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    • "[4], [43]). Recent research has, however, shown that when children with ASD have been instructed to fixate on a yawner’s eyes, they yawn contagiously with a frequency equal to that of typically developing children ([44] see also [45]). The previously found association between yawn contagion, autism, and failure on tests of cognitive empathy and theory-of-mind may therefore be one of correlation, rather than causation, and rely on differences in attentional states. "
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    ABSTRACT: Contagious yawning has been reported for humans, dogs and several non-human primate species, and associated with empathy in humans and other primates. Still, the function, development and underlying mechanisms of contagious yawning remain unclear. Humans and dogs show a developmental increase in susceptibility to yawn contagion, with children showing an increase around the age of four, when also empathy-related behaviours and accurate identification of others' emotions begin to clearly evince. Explicit tests of yawn contagion in non-human apes have only involved adult individuals and examined the existence of conspecific yawn contagion. Here we report the first study of heterospecific contagious yawning in primates, and the ontogeny of susceptibility thereto in chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus. We examined whether emotional closeness, defined as attachment history with the yawning model, affected the strength of contagion, and compared the contagiousness of yawning to nose-wiping. Thirty-three orphaned chimpanzees observed an unfamiliar and familiar human (their surrogate human mother) yawn, gape and nose-wipe. Yawning, but not nose-wiping, was contagious for juvenile chimpanzees, while infants were immune to contagion. Like humans and dogs, chimpanzees are subject to a developmental trend in susceptibility to contagious yawning, and respond to heterospecific yawn stimuli. Emotional closeness with the model did not affect contagion. The familiarity-biased social modulatory effect on yawn contagion previously found among some adult primates, seem to only emerge later in development, or be limited to interactions with conspecifics. The influence of the 'chameleon effect', targeted vs. generalised empathy, perspective-taking and visual attention on contagious yawning is discussed.
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