Premature babies have greater risk of autism

Premature babies have greater risk of autism

By Catherine Walker

The risk of developing autism is five times higher in premature infants than in children born at a normal weight, according to a new study which followed children for 21 years.

Some of the children studied were born weighing as little as one pound according to the autism researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.  Birth weights of between 500 to 2000 grams were recorded for the infants who were born between September 1984 and July 1987 in three New Jersey counties.

The study cost $3 million and was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.  The researchers followed 862 children from birth to adulthood and found that 5% of the children were diagnosed with autism.  This figure compares to 1% of the general population.  The researchers described their work as ‘the first study to have estimated the prevalence of ASD (autism spectrum disorders) using research validated diagnostic instruments.’

The lead author, Jennifer Pinto-Martin, M.P.H., Ph.D., director of the Centres for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology (CADDRE) at Penn Nursing said:

 ‘As survival of the smallest and most immature babies improves, impaired survivors represent an increasing public health challenge.  Emerging studies suggest that low birth weight may be a risk factor for autism spectrum disorders.’

It is already well established that there are links between low birth weight and a range of motor and cognitive problems but this is the first research that establishes that these children are also at increased risk of ASD.

‘Cognitive problems in these children may mask underlying autism.  If there is suspicion of autism or a positive screen test for ASD, parents should seek an evaluation for an ASD.  Early intervention improves long-term outcome and can help these children both at school and at home,’ said Pinto-Martin.

Penn researchers are to investigate the possible links between brain haemorrhage and autism by examining brain ultrasounds taken when these children were newborn.  This will be done in a future study.

Source: University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing 

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