Can wearable tech resolve the crisis of underemployment among neurodiverse individuals? A multidisciplinary Mason research team is about to embark on a major study to find out.
Two George Mason University professors have been awarded a $1.87 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop wearable technology designed to help neurodiverse individuals succeed in the workforce.
Sarah Wittman, assistant professor of management at the School of Business, and Vivian Genaro Motti, associate professor of information sciences and technology at the College of Engineering and Computing, will carry out a series of laboratory studies as well as a field study seeking to “support job tasks with a personalized wearable design to make the future of work more inclusive and equitable for neurodiverse adults.”
Wittman and Motti’s research began with the recognition that while many neurodiverse people are eager for employment and fully capable of performing well at work, the routines, expectations, and atmosphere of the contemporary workplace do not always accommodate their needs. Business environments can present all sorts of stressors—sensory, social, organizational—that can affect the productivity and mental health of neurodiverse individuals. Therefore, the extremely high rate of unemployment (up to 85%) among neurodiverse adults should be seen as an equity issue, rather than a reflection of ability or fitness to work. Wearables can contribute to resolving these inequities, helping users adjust to difficulties in their environment by, for example, reminding them to take a short break or do breathing exercises at moments of peak stress (indicated by an increase in their heart rates).
The concept behind the grant originated in 2017, with Motti’s contribution to developing WELI, a smartwatch application designed to assist students in Mason LIFE, a four-year program for neurodiverse young adults combining postsecondary coursework and employment opportunities in a supportive environment. The WELI project was funded as part of a three-year grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).
After WELI showed impressive results in a field study spanning the entire 2017-18 academic year, and following NIDILRR recommendations, the research team expanded the scope of the project beyond the college campus. Motti started to investigate how such technology could be adapted for the workforce. She joined forces with Wittman, a widely published management scholar specializing in work/life transitions.
The pair set out to better understand the pain points neurodiverse individuals face at work. Supported by seed funding from the Institute for Digital Innovation (IDIA) and the work of PhD student Niloofar Kalantari, who scoured Reddit and other online forums where neurodiverse people were posting about their workplace travails. Their data analysis revealed a wide range of challenges, with a high degree of variation correlated to different types of neurodiversity (ADHD, autism spectrum, Down syndrome, etc.). This confirmed their hypothesis that a one-size-fits-all wearable solution is not viable; instead, they began to pursue interventions tailored to individual user needs and specific segments of the neurodiverse population.
The four-year NSF project begins in January 2024. In the research studies planned, the PIs will recruit a large sample of adults with ADHD and those on the autism spectrum, working, for example, as stockers and order-fillers in the retail industry (or whose work might see them doing tasks with similar hand movements). Through a series of laboratory experiments, Motti and Wittman will refine the wearable technology and assess its positive impact upon both task-based performance and user well-being. Finally, they will launch a three-week field study intended to “test real-world efficacy and build guidelines around work times, tasks, and spaces for this technology”.
Beyond making life easier for neurodiverse individuals in the workplace, Motti and Wittman believe that their interventions will generate useful data for fuelling the ongoing push for more inclusive working environments. If successful, their wearable application will conclusively demonstrate the immense value that neurodiverse individuals bring to the labor force, while educating future researchers and employers on how best to foster inclusive work environments that can unlock that value for the benefit of all.