New Autism Study
Written by Faith Anderson on October 17, 2011
Study Evaluates Developmental Course of Low-Birthweight Children
The results of this research, which were published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, are the conclusions of a study that began more than twenty years ago. Researchers initially followed 1,105 children who were born in three New Jersey counties between 1984 and 1987, some of whom weighed just one pound at birth. Researchers then evaluated the children at ages two, six, nine, sixteen and twenty-one, each time evaluating different outcomes, including behavioral, psychiatric and academic. At age 16, the children were screened for autism and the results were surprising: 117 of the 623 children screened positive, while 506 screened negative. When the participants turned 21, Jennifer Pinto-Martin, director of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania and the study’s lead author, was able to observe 70 of the 117 who had screened positive and 119 of the 506 that had screened negative for autism. Researchers ended up with a total of 14 cases of ASD, which equals five times the rate of autism reported in the general population. “CDC data says it’s about 1% in 8-year-olds, and we found it to be 5% in 21-year-olds,” Pinto-Martin reported.
According to Alycia Halladay, director of environmental research for Autism Speaks, the study was particularly interesting because it focused on older children, as opposed to most autism research, which evaluates younger children. “What’s interesting is the 16-year-olds showed a very different profile than other children,” says Halladay. “These kids, on average, tended to have a higher IQ than a different study that tracked all kids with autism. So maybe low-birthweight children have a different developmental course.”
Recommendations for Parents of Low-Birthweight Children
To ensure that cases of autism aren’t overlooked, Pinto-Martin advises routine screening for ASD be institutionalized as part of pediatric primary care. It is possible that children born at low birthweights have a variety of additional disabilities, including language disorders or mental retardation, which may have masked an ASD diagnosis in the years before autism awareness increased. “There’s so much that needs to fit into a pediatric visit that developmental concerns may not get brought up,” says Pinto-Martin. “The same way we make sure every kid gets screened for hearing, we need to make sure that every kid gets screened for autism spectrum disorders.” Researchers of this landmark study indicate that parents shouldn’t be overly concerned, but suggest that they have their child evaluated as they develop. “Five percent is not 50%,” says the study’s lead author, but if you have a suspicion as a parent, you are probably right. Don’t take wait-and-see as an answer.”