The prevalence and profile of autism in individuals born preterm: a systematic review and meta-analysis

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Preterm birth (<37 weeks) adversely affects development in behavioural, cognitive and mental health domains. Heightened rates of autism are identified in preterm populations, indicating that prematurity may confer an increased likelihood of adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes. The present meta-analysis aims to synthesise existing literature and calculate pooled prevalence estimates for rates of autism characteristics in preterm populations.

Search terms were generated from inspection of relevant high-impact papers and a recent meta-analysis. Five databases were searched from database creation until December 2020 with PRISMA guidelines followed throughout.

10,900 papers were retrieved, with 52 papers included in the final analyses, further classified by assessment method (screening tools N=30, diagnostic assessment N=29). Pooled prevalence estimates for autism in preterm samples was 20% when using screening tools and 6% when using diagnostic assessments. The odds of an autism diagnosis were 3.3 times higher in individuals born preterm than in the general population.

The pooled prevalence estimate of autism characteristics in individuals born preterm is considerably higher than in the general population. Findings highlight the clinical need to provide further monitoring and support for individuals born preterm.
Original languageEnglish
Article number41
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders
Publication statusPublished - 21 Sep 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • Autism
  • Low birth weight
  • Meta-analysis
  • Prematurity
  • Preterm

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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