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Study Finds Low Birth Weight Children at Higher Risk for Autism

October 17, 2011
 Rates of autism are five times higher among children born at low birth weight than those of normal weight, according to a new study published today in the journal Pediatrics. The finding adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that babies born at low birth weight have an elevated risk for developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Over the course of 21 years, the investigators—from the University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—followed 623 participants born weighing less than 4 pounds, 6 ounces at birth. The researchers found a 5 percent rate of autism among these low birth weight individuals—a rate five times higher than that seen in the general population—currently estimated at 1 in 110 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Though most low birth weight babies develop normally, these findings provide more evidence that these infants have an elevated risk for developing autism and that parents should have their children monitored closely for signs of a developmental disorder,” says Alycia Halladay, Ph.D., Autism Speaks’ director of research for environmental science. “These findings are likewise important in furthering our understanding of normal versus abnormal brain development, which is crucially important to our search for more effective treatments and aids for those on the autism spectrum.”

In this vein, Autism Speaks is currently funding the International Collaboration for Autism Registry Epidemiology (iCARE), an investigation of the prenatal and birthing events that may increase or decrease the risk that an infant will later develop autism. This precedent-setting project analyzes information from health registries in six countries. By using this large pool of information, researchers will be able to make clearer, more reliable conclusions about the relationship between autism and risk factors such as birth weight and prematurity.

Families interested in participating in other autism studies are invited to explore a variety of opportunities on the Autism Speaks “Participate in Research” webpage.