Can Premature Birth Cause Autism?

Learn about the potential links between premature birth and an increased risk of autism, as well as the possible ways in which premature birth may disrupt normal brain development and increase susceptibility to environmental factors that contribute to autism. Whether you are a parent or a healthcare provider seeking up-to-date information on autism, this article offers valuable insights and practical advice.

Ruben Kesherim
November 17, 2023

Can Premature Birth Cause Autism?

What is Premature Birth?

Premature birth refers to the delivery of a baby before the completion of the full 37 to 40 weeks of gestation. Babies born prematurely often have a lower birth weight and may require specialized medical care in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to support their development and growth.

Premature birth can occur for various reasons, including maternal health issues, multiple pregnancies (such as twins or triplets), or spontaneous preterm labor. The exact cause of premature birth is not always clear, and it can be a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.

Not all babies born prematurely will develop autism. However, research has suggested a potential association between premature birth and an increased risk of certain developmental conditions, including autism.

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by challenges in social communication and interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning that the severity and presentation of symptoms can vary widely among individuals.

Autism typically appears in early childhood, and signs and symptoms can be observed as early as 18 months of age. These may include difficulties in social interactions, delayed speech and language development, repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, and intense interests in specific topics.

The exact cause of autism remains unknown, but it is believed to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Research continues to explore the complex interplay of these factors to gain a deeper understanding of the origins and development of autism.

By understanding the concepts of premature birth and autism, we can delve deeper into the potential link between these two phenomena.

Exploring the Potential Link

Extensive research has been conducted to investigate the potential link between premature birth and autism. Understanding this connection is crucial for identifying potential risk factors and developing appropriate interventions. In this section, we will delve into the latest research and studies focusing on the relationship between premature birth and autism, as well as the role of gestational age.

Research and Studies on Premature Birth and Autism

Numerous studies have examined the association between premature birth and autism. While the exact nature of the relationship is still being explored, several findings suggest a higher risk of autism in children born prematurely compared to those born full-term. Not all premature babies develop autism, and the majority of individuals with autism are not born prematurely.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics found that children born extremely premature (before 26 weeks of gestation) had a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) compared to those born full-term. However, the absolute risk of ASD in premature infants remains relatively low.

Another study published in the Journal of Pediatrics indicated that even moderate and late preterm births (between 32 and 36 weeks of gestation) were associated with an increased risk of autism. The study suggested that factors related to preterm birth, such as complications during pregnancy, may contribute to the development of autism.

It's worth mentioning that the relationship between premature birth and autism is complex and multifactorial. Other variables, such as genetic predisposition and environmental factors, may also play a role in the development of autism. Ongoing research continues to shed light on these intricate connections.

The Role of Gestational Age

Gestational age, which refers to the number of weeks a baby has been in the womb, plays a significant role in the potential link between premature birth and autism. Research suggests that the earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of autism. Premature babies born at extremely low gestational ages (22-28 weeks) generally face greater challenges and potential developmental delays compared to those born closer to full-term.

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that each decreasing week of gestational age was associated with an increased risk of autism. Many premature babies go on to have typical development and do not develop autism or other developmental disorders.

Understanding the role of gestational age in the potential link between premature birth and autism is crucial for healthcare professionals and caregivers. Early identification and intervention, such as early developmental monitoring and supportive therapies, can help mitigate potential developmental challenges in premature babies.

As research in this area continues to evolve, it is essential to promote awareness and support for individuals with autism and their families. By understanding the potential links between premature birth and autism, we can work towards early identification, intervention, and the provision of appropriate care for all children, regardless of their birth circumstances.

Factors Contributing to the Link

While the exact relationship between premature birth and autism is complex and still being explored, several factors contribute to the potential link. Two significant factors are brain development and maturation and environmental factors and stress.

Brain Development and Maturation

Premature birth interrupts the natural course of fetal development, including the crucial development of the brain. Babies born prematurely may have brains that are still in the process of maturing, particularly in the regions responsible for social communication and behavior regulation. This delayed development can potentially contribute to the risk of autism.

Research suggests that the risk of autism is higher in babies born extremely premature or with very low birth weights. The earlier the birth and the lower the birth weight, the higher the risk appears to be. The brain undergoes rapid growth and development during the last trimester of pregnancy, and premature birth disrupts this critical period. This may influence the wiring and connectivity of the brain, potentially leading to neurodevelopmental conditions like autism.

Not all premature babies will develop autism, and many factors contribute to the development of the condition. Genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and interactions between them also play a significant role.

Environmental Factors and Stress

Premature babies often require specialized medical care, which can expose them to various environmental stressors. These stressors may include prolonged hospital stays, medical procedures, and exposure to bright lights, loud noises, or other sensory stimuli. Additionally, premature babies may experience difficulties with feeding and sleeping, further contributing to their stress levels.

Exposure to high levels of stress, especially during critical periods of development, may impact the developing brain and increase the risk of neurodevelopmental conditions like autism. Chronic or persistent stress can disrupt the delicate balance of brain chemicals and impact the neural pathways involved in social communication and behavior regulation.

While stress and environmental factors are potential contributors, it's important to remember that they are just part of a complex puzzle. The interplay between genetics, prenatal factors, and postnatal experiences all contribute to the development of autism in premature babies.

Understanding the factors that contribute to the potential link between premature birth and autism is crucial in providing support and interventions for children who may be at higher risk. Early intervention and support, along with a multidisciplinary approach involving healthcare professionals, can play a significant role in promoting positive outcomes for premature babies.

Managing Autism in Premature Babies

For parents and caregivers of premature babies who have been diagnosed with autism, it's essential to understand the best ways to manage their unique needs. Early intervention and support play a crucial role in helping these children thrive. Working closely with healthcare professionals can provide guidance and resources to navigate the challenges associated with autism in premature babies.

Early Intervention and Support

Early intervention is key when it comes to managing autism in premature babies. The earlier appropriate interventions are introduced, the better the outcomes can be. Early intervention programs typically involve a combination of therapies tailored to the individual needs of the child.

Some common types of early intervention for children with autism include:

  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): ABA therapy focuses on teaching new skills and reducing challenging behaviors through positive reinforcement and structured teaching methods. This evidence-based approach has been shown to be effective in improving social interaction, communication, and daily living skills.
  • Speech and Language Therapy: Many children with autism struggle with communication skills. Speech and language therapy can help them develop and improve their ability to communicate effectively, whether through spoken language, sign language, or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices.
  • Occupational Therapy (OT): OT focuses on developing skills necessary for everyday activities, such as fine motor skills, sensory integration, and self-care skills. Occupational therapists work with children to improve their ability to engage in daily routines and develop independence.
  • Social Skills Groups: Social skills groups provide opportunities for children with autism to practice social interactions and develop appropriate social skills. These groups often include structured activities and guidance from trained professionals.

Each child is unique, and the specific interventions recommended may vary. Collaborating with a team of professionals, including therapists and educators, can help tailor the intervention plan to meet the specific needs of the child.

Working with Healthcare Professionals

When managing autism in premature babies, it's crucial to establish a strong partnership with healthcare professionals. These professionals can provide guidance, support, and resources to help navigate the challenges associated with autism.

Here are some key healthcare professionals who may play a role in managing autism in premature babies:

  • Pediatrician: A pediatrician is typically the primary healthcare provider for a premature baby. They can monitor the baby's overall health and development, provide referrals to specialists, and offer guidance on managing autism-related concerns.
  • Developmental Pediatrician: A developmental pediatrician specializes in diagnosing and managing developmental disorders, including autism. They can help assess the child's developmental progress, provide recommendations for interventions, and coordinate care with other specialists.
  • Psychologist/Psychiatrist: Psychologists and psychiatrists play a crucial role in evaluating and treating the emotional and behavioral aspects of autism. They can provide therapy, medication management if needed, and support for the child and family.
  • Therapists: Speech therapists, occupational therapists, and behavioral therapists are essential members of the healthcare team for children with autism. They provide specialized interventions and therapy to address specific challenges and promote development.
  • Special Education Professionals: Special education teachers and professionals can support the educational needs of children with autism. They can help develop individualized education plans (IEPs) and provide strategies to support learning and socialization in school settings.

Working collaboratively with these professionals can ensure that the child receives comprehensive and coordinated care. They can provide valuable insights, strategies, and resources to support the child's development and address any challenges that may arise.

By embracing early intervention and seeking guidance from healthcare professionals, parents and caregivers can help manage autism in premature babies and provide the necessary support for their overall well-being and development.

As research continues to shed light on the link between premature birth and autism, it is evident that there is still much to uncover. The ongoing studies in this field aim to deepen our understanding of the complex relationship between these two conditions.

The Ongoing Research

Researchers are actively investigating various aspects of the link between premature birth and autism. They are exploring the role of brain development and maturation in premature babies and how it may contribute to the risk of developing autism. Understanding the intricate processes that occur during this critical period of development is crucial in unraveling the enigma.

Additionally, studies are examining environmental factors and stress that premature babies may encounter, both during their time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and after discharge. These factors, such as exposure to loud noises, bright lights, and medical procedures, may influence the risk of autism in this vulnerable population.

By delving deeper into these areas, researchers hope to provide a clearer picture of the mechanisms underlying the link between premature birth and autism. This will ultimately contribute to better prevention, early detection, and intervention strategies.

Promoting Awareness and Support

As the scientific community continues to advance our knowledge, it is crucial to promote awareness and support for individuals with autism and their families. Understanding the potential link between premature birth and autism can help caregivers and healthcare professionals be proactive in monitoring developmental milestones and seeking early intervention services when needed.

It is important to emphasize that not all premature babies will develop autism. However, being informed about the increased risk can empower families to engage in early intervention programs and seek appropriate support. Early intervention services, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral interventions, can help address potential developmental challenges and maximize the child's potential.

By fostering a supportive environment and providing access to the necessary resources, we can ensure that individuals with autism, including those born prematurely, receive the care and support they need to thrive.

As researchers continue to delve into the intricate relationship between premature birth and autism, the knowledge gained will pave the way for advancements in understanding, prevention, and intervention. By staying informed and supporting ongoing research efforts, we can collectively make strides in improving the lives of individuals affected by both premature birth and autism.


Premature birth, or birth before 37 weeks of gestation, has been linked to an increased risk of autism. Several studies have found that children born prematurely are more likely to develop autism than those born at full term. The reasons for this link are not fully understood, but it is thought that premature birth may disrupt normal brain development and increase susceptibility to environmental factors that can contribute to the development of autism.

It's important for healthcare providers to monitor the development of premature infants closely and provide appropriate support and interventions if needed.


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