SUNDAY, May 1 (HealthDay News) -- Doctors are erroneously diagnosing autism spectrum disorder in many 18-month-old toddlers who were born extremely premature, a small new study suggests.
Later testing showed that a high proportion of the toddlers diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at that age were not autistic, the researchers found. Instead, the youngsters simply had a cognitive or language delay, both of which are common in children who were preterm babies, the researchers said.
Part of the problem, the researchers suggested, is that children who were premature may be undergoing testing for autism too early in life.
"We need to continue to watch these kids very closely, keeping in mind that they're at high risk for multiple, different kinds of developmental difficulties and delays, but not necessarily jumping to the conclusion that this is definitely autism at such an early age," said study lead author Dr. Bonnie Stephens.
"We need to monitor them over time, knowing we may not be able to diagnosis them [accurately] until they're a little bit older," added Stephens, a neonatologist and developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island.
Many neonatal specialists follow the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics that all children aged 18 to 24 months should be screened for autism spectrum disorder. Those who score below-average on the test are then referred for more diagnostic testing.
Stephens said rates of autism are on the rise in the United States and, "there seemed to be higher rates in the extremely preterm population. The first couple of studies showed rates that were higher than seemed possible and these studies were coming out right after the AAP recommendation."
But many things can go wrong in the early life of preterm infants, such as language and cognitive delays, Stephens said.
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