Premature infants born with low birthweight are five times more likely to have autism spectrum disorders (ASD) than children born at normal weights, according to a study published today in the journal Pediatrics. While just 1% of U.S. children in general are diagnosed with ASD according to most estimates, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing researchers found that 5% of premature infants they followed developed ASD.
This is the first study to establish a link between low birthweight and autism, and the research is remarkable because the 862 children, all born in the 1980s in New Jersey, were followed for 21 years. Previous research has established links between low birthweight and a range of motor and cognitive problems, and experts expressed concern that these problems could mask ASD in some of these children.
The next step in the current study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, is for researchers to examine brain ultrasounds take of these children as newborns, to determine whether brain hemorrhage – a complication of premature birth – is linked to autism.
Detecting autism as early in life as possible is considered essential, as early intervention improves long-term outcome for these children both in school and at home.
Watch for signs of normal development in your baby, toddler or preschooler with the help of this handy guide from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s called, “Learn the Signs, Act Early.”