Prematurity & Autism Spectrum Disorder

Dr Shelley Hyman

Studies have claimed that children who are born prematurely are more likely to experience peer rejection and low self-esteem which can later lead to the development of psychological disorders characterised by inattention, anxiety and social impairments. This means they are at high risk of being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Researchers suggest that children born prematurely with a very low birth weight are at risk of developing problems with social perception and cognition for example how they attend to verbal and nonverbal cues in a social interaction.

Williamson & Jakobson (2014) carried out a study comparing preterm children born with low birthweight and full-term children on a number of measures and tasks including the child and adolescent social perception measure (CASP).

This task involves viewing a number of videos of realistic social interactions and then identifying the emotions being conveyed through verbal and nonverbal cues such as body language or the situation/environment. Parents also filled out questionnaires that looks at the social and behavioural outcomes in their children.

The main finding from this study was that preterm children displayed problems with social perception even those they don’t have any major language/intellectual impairments. They found that full-term children were outperforming preterm children in CASP as full-term children were correctly identifying more face, body and situational nonverbal cues than preterm children.

This suggests that preterm children were having difficulty interpreting the emotions of others correctly since they were unable to identify nonverbal cues. Also, parents rated their preterm children as having more developmental social disorder symptoms in comparison to parents with full-term children.

Despite these differences, the preterm group were able to identify nonverbal voice cues in the CASP task which may suggest that their difficulties with nonverbal face, body and situational cues may be due to a visual processing deficit.

Future research will be needed to confirm these results by comparing preterm children’s performance on visual and verbal social interactions.


Alanna Wong


  • Williamson, K. E., & Jakobson, L. S. (2014). Social perception in children born at very low birthweight and its relationship with social/behavioural outcomes. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(9), 990-998.
Dr Shelley Hyman

About Dr Shelley Hyman

Senior Clinical Neuropsychologist. BSc (psychol) Hons, MClinNeuropsych, PhD (Med) MAPS CCN. Founder and director of the centre that was founded in 2006.

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