A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Fall, 2017 | Number 4, Volume 31

Perceptual issues may explain “contagious yawning” differences in individuals with ASD 

Research shows that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are less likely than other people to exhibit “contagious yawning”—that is, to yawn in response to another person yawning. While some experts have suggested that this may stem from a deficit in empathy, new research points to perceptual differences instead. 

In the new study, which involved 41 neurotypical subjects, Meingold H. M. Chan and Chia-Huei Tseng induced yawning by showing participants a video and photos of people yawning. The researchers also measured participants’ levels of autistic traits with the Autism Spectrum Quotient, evaluated their eye gaze patterns, and analyzed their ability to detect either yawning or emotion in photos of human faces.

The researchers found that participants who were more likely to detect yawning were also more likely to yawn in response. They also found a positive association between participants’ duration of fixation on the eye region and the detection of yawning. 

However, sensitivity to happy or angry faces did not correlate significantly with contagious yawning. Little association was seen between contagious yawning and scores on the Autism Spectrum Quotient. The researchers did find that females exhibited contagious yawning more often than males. 

Tseng comments, “We find that for [the] non-clinical population, perceptual ability is more closely related to contagious yawning than empathy is. Since it’s been documented that people with autism tend to suffer from impaired perception such as an atypical eye gazing on faces and a difficulty in judging facial emotions, it’s possible that their perceptual limitation causes them to be unable to detect someone else’s yawning expression.”


“Yawning detection sensitivity and yawning contagion,” Meingold H. M. Chan and Chia-Huei Tseng, i-Perception, August 25, 2017 (free online). Address: Chia-Huei Tseng, Research Institute of Electrical Communication, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan, [email protected]


“Contagious yawning more closely associated with perceptual sensitivity than empathy,” news release, Tohoku University, September 5, 2017.