OBJECTIVES. The objectives of this study were to compare the birth weight and gestational age distributions and prevalence rates of autism with those of other developmental disabilities and to estimate the birth weight–and gestational age–specific risks for autism.
METHODS. For the first objective, a retrospective cohort of children born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1981–1993 who survived to 3 years of age was identified through vital records. Children in the cohort who had developmental disabilities (autism, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, hearing loss, or vision impairment) and were still residing in metropolitan Atlanta at 3 to 10 years of age were identified through the Metropolitan Atlanta Developmental Disabilities Surveillance Program. A nested case-control sample from the cohort was used for the second objective; all cohort children identified with autism were case participants, and control participants were cohort children who were not identified as having developmental disabilities or receiving special education services.
RESULTS. The prevalence of autism in low birth weight or preterm children was markedly lower than those of other developmental disabilities. In multivariate analyses, birth weight of <2500 g and preterm birth at <33 weeks' gestation were associated with an approximately twofold increased risk for autism, although the magnitude of risk from these factors varied according to gender (higher in girls) and autism subgroup (higher for autism accompanied by other developmental disabilities). For example, a significant fourfold increased risk was observed in low birth weight girls for autism accompanied by mental retardation, whereas there was no significantly increased risk observed in low birth weight boys for autism alone.
CONCLUSIONS. Gender and autism subgroup differences in birth weight and gestational age, resulting in lower gender ratios with declining birth weight or gestational age across all autism subgroups, might be markers for etiologic heterogeneity in autism.