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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

Autism Linked to Babies Born at Low Weight

Study Shows Higher Risk for Later Autism Diagnosis for Low-Birth-Weight Babies
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Low Birth Weight and Developmental Disabilities

Pinto-Martin says the autism rate may be even higher among the low-birth-weight babies born today.

At the time the babies in the study were born in the mid-1980s, a 1-pound baby that survived was considered a "miracle baby." Now babies weighing 1 pound are routinely kept alive through advances in neonatal care.

Experts say low-birth-weight babies may face a number of developmental and movement disabilities as they grow up, and autism may one of them.

"As our technology in the neonatal intensive care units is able to allow babies that are born earlier and earlier and smaller and smaller to survive, there may be other consequences of that," says Alycia Halladay, PhD, director of research for environmental sciences at Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy and science group. "That is definitely something to consider, and something that deserves further study."

Halladay says this solid study strengthens the science behind the widely held belief that low-birth-weight children are at higher risk for autism. But more research is needed to determine the nature of that relationship.

Pinto-Martin agrees.

"It may just be a marker for the real cause," Pinto-Martin tells WebMD. "Just because you have a baby born with a low birth weight doesn't mean they are at risk for autism. There may be something that happened during their neonatal course, or it may be an infection in the mother both precipitated the early delivery and the autism.

"This is where the work really begins," says Pinto-Martin. "We have a really important clue now, and we need to look at how this helps us learn about specific causes of autism."

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