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Pediatrics. 2010 Sep;126(3):457-67. doi: 10.1542/peds.2009-2680. Epub 2010 Aug 2.

Early medical and behavioral characteristics of NICU infants later classified with ASD.

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  • 1New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities, Department of Infant Development, 1050 Forest Hill Rd, Staten Island, NY 10314, USA.



Recent evidence suggests higher prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in NICU graduates. This aim of this study was to identify retrospectively early behaviors found more frequently in NICU infants who went on to develop ASD.


Twenty-eight NICU graduates who later received a diagnosis of ASD were compared with 2169 other NICU graduates recruited from 1994 to 2005. They differed in gender, gestational age, and birth cohort. These characteristics were used to draw a matched control sample (n=112) to determine which, if any, early behaviors discriminated subsequent ASD diagnosis. Behavioral testing at targeted ages (adjusted for gestation) included the Rapid Neonatal Neurobehavioral Assessment (hospital discharge, 1 month), Arousal-Modulated Attention (hospital discharge, 1 and 4 months), and Bayley Scales of Infant Development (multiple times, 4-25 months).


At 1 month, children with ASD but not control children had persistent neurobehavioral abnormalities and higher incidences of asymmetric visual tracking and arm tone deficits. At 4 months, children with ASD had continued visual preference for higher amounts of stimulation than did control children, behaving more like newborns. Unlike control children, children with ASD had declining mental and motor performance by 7 to 10 months, resembling infants with severe central nervous system involvement.


Differences in specific behavior domains between NICU graduates who later receive a diagnosis of ASD and matched NICU control children may be identified in early infancy. Studies with this cohort may provide insights to help understand and detect early disabilities, including ASD.

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