Sunday 29 September 2013

Yawning and Autism

Scientific American published a very interesting article about yawning and children with autism.

It has been known for awhile that people with autism don't find yawning as contagious as people without.  For a long time, this has been assumed to be a lack of empathy.  But the new study suggests that it may actually be lack of observation.

It does make sense.  If a person isn't looking at someone's face and has a tendency to tune out the sounds around them, what would trigger a sympathetic yawn?  In this study, they encouraged children with autism to look at person's eyes or mouth by having them count blinks or smiles in a recorded video.  Of course, the video also included yawns and the scientists then counted how many yawns were triggered.  The rates were similar to the control group without autism.

The exciting part about this study is that it suggests teaching children with autism how to observe might help them to overcome some of their social challenges, particularly if it is done early enough that the automatic mirroring neurons have a chance to come into play.

When Alex was starting therapy, the therapist suggested that I put stickers or other things on my face at random intervals to encourage him to look at me.  (I will not recount the embarrassingly large number of times I forgot about the sticker and went out in public.)  I wonder sometimes if this helped Nathan even more, since it encouraged him to start looking at faces at an even younger age.

Alex still tends to look at faces in a piecemeal fashion.  If you watch his eyes, you can see he's picking one part of the face and sticking with it.  (Often the eye, nose or chin, for some reason.)  Nathan in contrast has very natural eye contact, except when he's stressed or highly focused.  He finds it very hard to look at someone when he's upset but then will get more upset as he misreads the other person's social cues.

I find I have to tell him to look at me and then keep my message short and on target so that he's got a chance to absorb it.

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