Study Finds Strong Correlation Between Low Birthweight, Autism

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Children with low birthweight were five times more likely to develop autism spectrum disorders compared to the general population.

Links between low birthweight and a range of motor and cognitive problems have been well established for some time. A new study, however, is the first to find that children with low birthweight were five times more likely to develop autism spectrum disorders (ASD) compared to the general population.

The children followed in the study, some as small as about a pound when born, were followed for 21 years. The infants were born between September 1984 through July 1987 in Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean counties in New Jersey at birthweights ranging from 500 to 2,000 grams or a maximum of about 4.4 pounds.

The study, which was published recently in Pediatrics, was conducted by autism researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

“As survival of the smallest and most immature babies improves, impaired survivors represent an increasing public health challenge,” lead author Jennifer Pinto-Martin, PhD, MPH, wrote. “Emerging studies suggest that low birthweight may be a risk factor for autism spectrum disorders,” added Pinto-Martin, who is also director of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology at Penn Nursing.

“Cognitive problems in these children may mask underlying autism,” Pinto-Martin said in a statement. “If there is suspicion of autism or a positive screening 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.”

In future studies, Penn researchers plan to investigate possible links between brain hemorrhage, a complication of premature birth, and autism by examining brain ultrasounds taken of these children as newborns.

The researchers, which included a team at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, followed 862 children from birth to young adulthood. They found that 5% of the children were diagnosed with autism, compared to one percent of the general population in what researchers called “the first study to have estimated the prevalence of ASD … using research-validated diagnostic instruments.”

SourceLow Birthweight Infants Five Times More Likely to Have Autism [University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing]

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