The study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, a journal of the American Medical Association, also found that the more severe the pre-eclampsia, the higher the likelihood of autism.
The research involved more than 1,000 children aged two to three in northern California. All of their mothers had confirmed diagnoses of pre-eclampsia, and scientists compared data about those developing normally to those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental delays.
"We also observed a significant association between severe pre-eclampsia and developmental delay."
Autism spectrum disorder affects as many as 1 in 88 children in the United States.
The exact causes of the developmental disorder are unknown, with research pointing to genes, the environment, or both.
Autism leads to difficulties in social, emotional and communication skills, and has no known cure.
Some past research has suggested that pre-eclampsia -- which causes high blood pressure late in pregnancy and high levels of protein in the urine, as well as seizures in severe cases -- could be linked to autism, perhaps by depriving the fetus of nutrients and oxygen.
"While single studies cannot establish causality, the cumulative evidence supports efforts to reduce pre-eclampsia and diminish severity, to improve neonatal outcomes," Walker said.
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