Premature babies at higher risk of autism: study

Wed Apr 2, 2008 8:01pm EDT
 
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By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - One out of four toddlers born prematurely showed early signs of autism in a study, and the risk was greatest among those children who were the smallest at birth, Canadian researchers said on Wednesday.

Premature birth and low birth weight have been recognized in earlier studies as risk factors for a number of developmental problems, including autism and other illnesses.

But the study of 91 children, who were born around between 7 and 14 weeks prematurely and weighed 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg) or less at birth, was the first to directly assess the risk of autism in this population, the researchers wrote in the journal Pediatrics.

The initial screening test performed at around 21 months of age found suspected autism in 23 of the 91 children. The risk was greatest among those children who were the smallest at birth, and those born to mothers who suffered a prenatal infection or bleeding, Catherine Limperopoulos of McGill University said in a telephone interview.

"Early autistic behaviors seem to be an under-recognized feature of very low birth-weight infants," she wrote.

She added that the screening was preliminary, and definitive diagnosis would come in a follow-up study.

Autism or related disorders such as Asperger's syndrome strike one out of 150 U.S. children, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated. The condition can have relatively mild symptoms or can severely disable a child by interfering with speech and behavior.

Higher rates of autism in recent years have been attributed to various causes, including improved diagnoses. Other studies have found genetic and other links to the condition, which many experts suspect may have several different causes.   Continued...

 
<p>Newborn babies are seen in a hospital in a file photo. REUTERS/Stringer</p>