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Autism Tests for Preemies May Be Faulty, Study Suggests
Date:5/2/2011

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"We bet that ... there might be a lot of false-positives," she added.

That hypothesis turned out to be correct -- at least in this small study sample of infants born prematurely at Stephens' hospital and monitored for the first 30 months of their lives. Babies in the study had been born before 28 weeks of gestation and were assessed for autism spectrum disorder using three different tests at 18 months and 30 months of age (with the ages corrected for prematurity).

At the first assessment, 18 percent of 152 toddlers tested positive for autism spectrum disorder, but at 30 months, only 10 percent of 116 youngsters did.

"We saw a significant decrease in positive screens," said Stephens, who stressed that the findings were preliminary and that follow-up research is continuing with her team planning a larger trial.

As it turned out, only 3 percent of the youngsters failed all three screening tests at both 18 months and 30 months of age. Later testing showed these children did end up being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

But toddlers who tested positive on some screens for autism spectrum disorder at both 18 and 30 months of age did have cognitive and language delays, Stephens said.

"Early diagnosis is important, but we were becoming concerned that a high rate of false-positives had at least the potential to cause unnecessary stress for parents. In this group of [premature] kids, we followed them so closely they all got early intervention anyway [for other problems]," Stephens said. "We felt that the early identification of a positive screen may not be as critical as making an accurate diagnosis."

Stephens was scheduled to present the findings Sunday at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, in Denver. Research presented at such meetings should be viewed as preliminary because it hasn't undergone scrutiny similar to studies published in peer-reviewed journals.

The study findings run counte
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