A clinical psychologist made a interesting discovery a few years ago during a plane with her son, who has autism. While he squirmed and complained about the pressure in his ears, Molly Helt thought yawning might get them to pop.
Of course, you can’t yawn on command. But we all know yawning is contagious, so Helt started yawning and waited for her son to, as well. But he didn’t.
Which led her to uncover this interesting, fun fact: kids on certain parts of the autism spectrum are not susceptible to contagious yawns.
After the plane ride, Helt headed to the lab. In an experiment, she had a teacher read a story aloud, pausing midway to yawn. Of the 28 percent of the kids in the study who had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, 23 percent of those with a milder form yawned along with the teacher. Absolutely non of the kids diagnosed with a full autistic disorder yawned.
Of the 68 neurotypicals in the study, 43 percent yawned after the teacher did, which is about what you’d find among average adults.
These findings could be meaningful in the study of mirror neurons, which fire when you see someone else perform an action. Mirror neurons, along with empathy, are thought to be responsible for contagious yawning, and both are thought to be impaired in the brains of people with autism.
The function of these mirror neurons, some researchers say, can be improved with therapy, which gives some people hope that autism may some day be treatable.
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