The children, some born as small as about a pound, were followed for 21 years making this study.
The infants were born between September 1984 through July 1987 in Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean counties in New Jersey at birthweights from 500 to 2000 grams or a maximum of about 4.4 pounds.
“As survival of the smallest and most immature babies improves, impaired survivors represent an increasing public health challenge,” said lead author Jennifer Pinto-Martin, MPH, PhD, director of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology (CADDRE) at Penn Nursing.
“Emerging studies suggest that low birthweight may be a risk factor for autism spectrum disorders.”
Links between low birthweight and a range of motor and cognitive problems have been well established for some time, but this is the first study that establishes that these children are also at increased risk for autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
“Cognitive problems in these children may mask underlying autism,” said Dr. Pinto-Martin.
“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,” she added.
The study has been published in journal Pediatrics.