New ‘ToddlerLab’ for autism research

Ella Rhodes on a new facility funded by CareTech Foundation.

New technology, including virtual reality, will be at the heart of a new lab to explore developmental disorders in Toddlers. The Wohl Wolfson ToddlerLab, based at Birkbeck, University of London, will see children from 18 months to four years have their brain activity monitored while they play games and engage in other everyday behaviours.

As well as monitoring children’s brain activity during play the £3.7 million lab, part-funded by the charitable arm of social care company CareTech, is also set up for sleep studies to allow researchers to explore the role of sleep in child development. It also features a virtual reality environment called CAVE which simulates real-world surroundings to assess how toddler brain activity changes with environment.

The new ToddlerLab will build on findings from Birkbeck’s BabyLab which has recently found that babies who react more strongly to sudden changes in light intensity may be more likely to later be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Janet Parsons, a PhD researcher at the BabyLab and also the mother of a child with autism, said she was enthusiastic about how the ToddlerLab’s research could make a difference to parents like her.

‘Becoming a parent for the first time is always difficult, a bit like taking an A level without first doing the GCSE!  But becoming the parent of a child with a developmental disorder you leap from nothing to an advanced degree in childcare!... The ToddlerLab can help us understand how developmental disorders evolve. This will not only help children with developmental disorders to be more able to learn but also, and just as importantly, it will help parents and schools to be more able to teach them.’

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