Research links autism rate to low birth weight.


by Jean Enersen

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Posted on October 25, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Updated Tuesday, Oct 25 at 9:25 AM

"I'm thinking about a water fountain," five year old Finn Okell said to his kindergarten teacher.

To hear him chatter that way is extraordinary. Why? Because it's so ordinary. His father remembers a time when everything was uncertain. Finn was diagnosed with autism as a toddler.
"When we first got the diagnosis we were talking about whether he could learn to talk, and whether he could learn to communicate," said Patrick Okell.

Since he was eighteen months old Finn has been attending a special autism program at the University of Washington's Haring Center. Here teachers work intensively with the children.

"Can you jump up? Jump!" one instructor coached her young student.

They painstakingly teach the children things that come naturally to most kids.

"I want water," said one young boy.  "You said I want water. I'll get you some water. Nice job using your words to ask for water," two instructors chimed in.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates almost one in a hundred 8 year olds has some symptoms of autism. Now a new study in the journal "Pediatrics" has found that in children who weighed less than four pounds four ounces at birth, the rate was five times higher than that.

Dr. Ilene Schwartz Ph.D, Chair, Area of Special Education in the University of Washington College of Education said the findings should alert pediatricians and parents of preemies to look for autism's warning signs.

"They are things like children not responding to their name, children not pointing to show, children not imitating, not interested in the give and take games that are all about parenthood, all about Pattycake, Ring around the rosie and those kinds of games that are give and take with adults and babies," Schwartz said.

Patrick Okell noticed clues in Finn, who was born preemie, and low birth weight.

"A lack of eye contact, a lack of interaction with other people, preferring objects to people."

Dr. Schwartz said if the study helps get low birth weight babies with autism into care earlier it can be a game changer. 
She's seen the difference early intervention makes.

"We routinely see children with autism, now going on to college, graduating from high school, having very productive adult lives," Dr. Schwartz said.

That is giving parents of children like Finn hope.

"I feel like, and I've heard other parents say this. I feel like this place saved my life," said Okell.

Classrooms around the world now use the techniques developed at the University of Washington's Haring Center. Dr. Schwartz directed parents to a website called First Signs to learn more of autism's warning signs and developmental milestones your baby should reach.