New smartwatch design will benefit young adults with disabilities

Vivian Motti

Vivian Motti, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Sciences and Technology, is doing collaborative research for a smartwatch that will improve the lives of young adults with intellectual disabilities

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Photo by Evan Cantwell

Vivian Motti, an assistant professor of information sciences and technology, is pushing smartwatch capabilities beyond fitness tracking and phone calls to help neuro-diverse individuals live more independent lives here at George Mason University and beyond.

Motti and Anna Evmenova, an associate professor of special education and disability research in the College of Education and Human Development, received a grant of more than $700,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop a smartwatch application that will help young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in their daily lives.

Young adults who are enrolled in the Mason LIFE Program with down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or autism are usually guided through their days by assistants who help with daily tasks and who intervene when the student gets stressed or overwhelmed. Motti and Evmenova’s app will make those interventions less intrusive to the wearers and the assistants.

“The idea is to use the watch to help students with self-regulation,” says Motti. “One of the biggest challenges for assistants is to help the person cope with situations that might be stressful.”

The assistant, through a mobile app that is connected to the watch, can ask the student questions about how they are feeling and based on their response they can give suggestions, such as to take a deep breath, take a walk, or drink water.

Typically, these interventions have to be given out loud to figure out what is wrong in any given situation and how to fix it. “In a classroom setting these interventions, while effective, can be stigmatizing because the student has a person beside them that touches them and tells them what to do,” says Motti. “With the watch, the interventions are much less intrusive.”

Motti and Evmenova have already created a proof of concept for the watch application over the past two years. The new grant will allow them to move onto characterizing the scenarios where interventions are necessary and then further evaluate those interventions to make sure they are intuitive and easy to use on the watch.

 “This project will help us identify ways wearable technology can support young adults with intellectual and development disabilities in regulating their emotions while completing a task in the learning or employment environment without overreliance on the support staff,” says Evmenova.

Motti is also already looking to further possibilities for this project. “In the future, if we could automate this process or learn more about how to improve the self-regulation, which will be great so that neuro-diverse individuals can become even more independent and included in society.”