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Specific Behaviors in NICU Grads Predictive of Autism

Persistence of newborn behaviors, visual preferences in infants are among predictors

MONDAY, Aug. 2 (HealthDay News) -- Neurobehavioral testing during infancy in babies who are neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) graduates reveals specific abnormalities in those who are later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to research published online Aug. 2 in Pediatrics.

Bernard Z. Karmel, Ph.D., of the Richmond University Medical Center in Staten Island, N.Y., and colleagues compared 28 NICU graduates who were later diagnosed with ASD to 112 matched control NICU graduates who did not develop ASD. The purpose of the study was to determine if any early behaviors in this group of infants predicted a future ASD diagnosis.

The researchers found that, when tested at 1 month of age (corrected for gestational age), neurobehavioral abnormalities, asymmetric visual tracking, and lack of arm tone were more common in the children with ASD than in the controls. Tested again at 4 months, the ASD children continued to visually prefer higher levels of stimulation than did control children, a behavior similar to that of newborns. When tested between 7 to 10 months, children with ASD began to have declining scores of both mental and motor functioning, in a pattern similar to that of infants with severe central nervous system impairment.

"A great deal of additional evidence would be needed to assert that these atypical behaviors are diagnostic for ASD or to prove their connection to later emerging social and communication deficits. We do propose, however, that the association of the behaviors described here with ASD in a medically compromised cohort might establish a group of infants to study prospectively to identify precursors to ASD, along with the more established strategy of study designs involving infant siblings of children with ASD," the authors write.

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