Premature babies are five times more likely to suffer with autism, a new study has suggested.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Nursing found that babies born before the 37th week of pregnancy were at greater risk of autism than those born on time and at a normal weight.

Lead author Jennifer Pinto-Martin said: 'As survival of the smallest and most immature babies improves, impaired survivors represent an increasing public health challenge.

"Emerging studies suggest that low birth weight may be a risk factor for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs)."

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, followed 862 youngsters over a 21-year period. It is the first to suggest a link between low birth weight and autism. The researchers now want to look at possible links between brain haemorrhage - often a complication of premature birth - and autism, by looking at brain scans of newborns.

Posted by Robert Mair