Only 26.3 percent of people with neurodevelopmental disorders ages 18 to 64 are employed, according to the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability 2017 Disability Statistics Annual Report, cited in a team of Temple University researchers’ project proposal.
The Temple researchers are in the beginning stages of a four-year project to develop artificial intelligence software to address employment barriers, like decreased mobility or being unable to travel to work, for people with neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said Slobodan Vucetic, the project’s principal investigator and a computer and information sciences professor.
By providing a virtual coach to assist with tasks, the research will help individuals “find and keep jobs in the information technology industry,” Vucetic said.
In September 2020, the researchers received a $2.3 million Future of Work Award from the National Science Foundation, which is given to researchers whose projects improve the future of internet-based jobs, Vucetic said.
The project focuses on people ages 18 to 25 with mild to moderate neurodevelopmental disorders who are not college-educated, according to the project proposal.
Previous workshop models that aimed to aid neurodiverse people in the workplace created a stigmatized environment for the worker by separating individuals into different work atmospheres, said Donald Hantula, a co-principal investigator on the project and a psychology professor.
“Would you want to go to work in a place that’s labeled as, ‘Here’s where the people with disabilities go every day?’” he added. “How’d you feel if you had someone following you around your job every day telling you what to do?”
Individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders often need a coach at their jobs, which companies have to hire in addition to the individual, said Eduard Dragut, a co-principal investigator on the project and a computer and information sciences professor.
“Many companies overlook people from this segment of our society, now our goal is to create the software that kind of creates a sort of virtual coach,” Dragut added.
Existing programs that help people with neurodevelopmental disorders pursue careers after high school are typically underfunded, and the students only receive a few months of training before they’re left on their own, Vucetic said.
These transition programs help people age 18 to 21, but after they age out of the program, they’re no longer provided support from the school system, wrote Beth Garrison, a second-year computer and information science student, in an email to The Temple News.
Many individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders that are employed are usually working minimum-wage jobs, Hantula said.
Under Section 14 of the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are allowed to pay employees with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage after they receive permission from the Wage and Hour Division, according to the United States Department of Labor website.
“We have to make work that is satisfying and sustainable,” he added. “We have to make that kind of work available to everybody who is going to be qualified and who’s going to seek it.”
Last summer, the team led an eight person study to see how participants with neurodevelopmental disorders would interact with materials, like training protocols. The investigators recorded how participants worked with the material, like how long it took to complete a task to test the team’s proposed software materials, Garrison said.
The development of the entire project is still in the beginning stages and will require more studies to fully determine what the final AI product will look like, Hantula said.
The team envisions an app that could be used on various platforms, like a desktop, PC, phone or tablet, that will guide the user through whatever task they are working on, Garrison said.
Although the software has not yet been developed, the program may have the ability to clarify written instructions and help deliver feedback to users to enhance job performance, said Matt Tincani, a co-principal investigator on the project and a professor and chairman of Temple’s teaching and learning department.
Besides getting a job, Tincani believes there will be additional benefits to broader inclusion of individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders in the workplace.
“If you’re able to get a decent job and maintain it like, when you’re in the work setting, you’re more likely to build social relationships and develop social networks, you’re more likely to, you know, have the opportunity to meet a romantic partner and date,” he said. “You’re more likely to be able to live independently and not with your parents or not, you know, with assistance because you’ve got a job where you can pay your rent or you can pay your mortgage.”