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Autism Res. 2018 Apr;11(4):602-612. doi: 10.1002/aur.1921. Epub 2018 Jan 22.

A prospective study of fetal head growth, autistic traits and autism spectrum disorder.

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Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry/Psychology, Sophia Children's Hospital, Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
The Generation R Study Group, Erasmus University, Medical Center, PO Box 2040, 3000 CA, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
Telethon Kids Institute, University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.
Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC), Long Pocket Campus, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
Centre for Child and Family Studies, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands.
Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Melbourne and the Royal Women's Hospital, Parkville, Victoria, Australia.
School of Women's and Infants' Health, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia, Australia.
School of Psychological Science, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia, Australia.
Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, Australia.
Department of Epidemiology, Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
Department of Pediatrics, Sophia Children's Hospital, Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
Department of Radiology, Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.


Altered trajectories of brain growth are often reported in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), particularly during the first year of life. However, less is known about prenatal head growth trajectories, and no study has examined the relation with postnatal autistic symptom severity. The current study prospectively examined the association between fetal head growth and the spectrum of autistic symptom severity in two large population-based cohorts, including a sample of individuals with clinically diagnosed ASD. This study included 3,820 children from two longitudinal prenatal cohorts in The Netherlands and Australia, comprising 60 individuals with a confirmed diagnosis of ASD. Latent growth curve models were used to examine the relationship between fetal head circumference measured at three different time points and autistic traits measured in postnatal life using either the Social Responsiveness Scale or the Autism-Spectrum Quotient. While lower initial prenatal HC was weakly associated with increasing autistic traits in the Dutch cohort, this relationship was not observed in the Australian cohort, nor when the two cohorts were analysed together. No differences in prenatal head growth were found between individuals with ASD and controls. This large population-based study identified no consistent association across two cohorts between prenatal head growth and postnatal autistic traits. Our mixed findings suggest that further research in this area is needed. Autism Res 2018, 11: 602-612. © 2018 The Authors Autism Research published by International Society for Autism Research and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


It is not known whether different patterns of postnatal brain growth in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) also occurs prenatally. We examined fetal head growth and autistic symptoms in two large groups from The Netherlands and Australia. Lower initial prenatal head circumference was associated with autistic traits in the Dutch, but not the Australian, group. No differences in head growth were found in individuals with ASD and controls when the data was combined. Our mixed findings suggest that more research in this area is needed.


brain growth; head circumference; pregnancy; prenatal; ultrasound

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