A comparison of children born preterm and full-term on the autism spectrum in a prospective community sample

Published December 2020



Previous research suggests children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD or “autism”) born extremely and very preterm face substantially delayed development than their peers born full-term. Further, children born preterm are proposed to show a unique behavioral phenotype, which may overlap with characteristics of autism, making it difficult to disentangle their clinical presentation. To clarify the presentation of autism in children born preterm, this study examined differences in key indicators of child development (expressive language, receptive language, fine motor, and visual reception) and characteristics of autism (social affect and repetitive, restricted behaviors).

Materials and Methods:

One fifty-eight children (136 full-term, 22 preterm) diagnosed with autism, aged 22–34 months, were identified prospectively using the Social Attention and Communication Surveillance tools during community-based, developmental surveillance checks in the second year of life. Those identified at “high likelihood” of an autism diagnosis were administered the Mullen Scales of Early Learning and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule.


The children born preterm and full-term did not differ significantly in their fine motor, visual reception, expressive language, or receptive language skills. No significant differences in social affect and repetitive and restrictive behavior traits were found.


The findings of this study differs from previous research where children diagnosed with autism born very or extremely preterm were developmentally delayed and had greater autistic traits than their term-born peers. These null findings may relate to the large proportion of children born moderate to late preterm in this sample. This study was unique in its use of a community-based, prospectively identified sample of children diagnosed with autism at an early age. It may be that children in these groups differ from clinic- and hospital-based samples, that potential differences emerge later in development, or that within the autism spectrum, children born preterm and full-term develop similarly. It was concluded that within the current sample, at 2 years of age, children diagnosed with autism born preterm are similar to their peers born full-term. Thus, when clinicians identify characteristics of autism in children born preterm, it is important to refer the child for a diagnostic assessment for autism.

Luu, J., Jellett. R., Yaari. M., Gilbert, M. and Barbaro, J. (2020). A comparison of children born preterm and full-term on the autism spectrum in a prospective community sample. Frontiers in Neurology, 11, 597505. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2020.597505

Please note: some publications may only be accessible to registered users.