How wearable tech could help adults with developmental disorders manage anxiety

A new pilot project aims to identify and treat early symptoms of anxiety with the aid of smart watches and a custom app.
By Veronica Zaretski - Published on Jul 23, 2019
Four people, three women and a tall man, stand in a line, showing off a smart phone and a wearable watch.
Lita, a participant in the pilot project, poses with (from left to right) Andrea Palmer, CEO of Awake Labs; Zahra Shams Shoaei, the research coordinator; and Paul Fijal, the chief product officer. (Jillian Hotson)

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For the thousands of adults with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual and developmental disorders in Ontario, mental-health conditions such as anxiety and depression can be isolating. 

Now an Ontario-based group of entrepreneurs, researchers, and support providers is developing a new resource by piloting a project, funded by the Ontario Brain Institute, that aims to help people living with ASD — and other developmental disorders — manage anxiety symptoms before they escalate. 

Since March 20, four participants from Community Living Windsor, a not-for-profit organization that provides supports for adults living with developmental disorders, have been using wearable technology to monitor, track, and treat anxiety. 

Not all people who experience high levels of anxiety exhibit preliminary symptoms, says Adriana McVicker, CLW’s communications and community-relations manager: “When someone has high levels of anxiety, how can we identify just when it’s starting to happen? The earlier we can intervene, the better the outcome.”  

The technology brings together the Anxiety Meter, an app created by Holland Bloorview scientist Azadeh Kushki, and Reveal Stories, a free care-coordination app created by startup Awake Labs. The combined app, developed in partnership with You X Ventures, is downloaded on a smart watch — the Anxiety Meter’s algorithm measures a user’s baseline heart rate and detects changes that could indicate anxiety, while Reveal Stories allows users to keep track of a range of psychological and physical symptoms. 

Staff at CLW receive biofeedback from the app on iPads, and, if anxiety ratings rise, help participants employ mindfulness or cognitive-behavioural-therapy techniques before symptoms can intensify. “The app calculates an anxiety score based on heart rate,” says Andrea Palmer, CEO of Awake Labs. “The app takes into account some motion, like walking, so the anxiety score shouldn't be triggered by exercise.” 

Palmer says that the pilot will last for as long as the participants are willing to wear the app. She hopes it will be at least a month or two, so that they can work on improving the app’s accuracy and efficacy, but she’d be happy to extend the collaboration. 

“We met the four participating partners through Community Living Windsor,” says Palmer. “CLW asked on our behalf if they would like to be involved. If they expressed interest, they signed a consent form. All four have complete control over when and how they use the device and can revoke consent at any time.” 

To ensure privacy and security, the app doesn’t collect any personally identifiable information, Palmer says: “Each watch is paired with one iPad, and we have a unique ID for each. Our Reveal Stories app — and so will this app once this collaboration is expanded — follows all relevant privacy standards.” 

Bianca DiBattista, a direct-support coordinator who works with one of the participants, says that the app could prove helpful for new primary supporters at CLW. “It’s going to be really helpful to new people who come to support,” says DiBattista. “I’m hoping that this app will alert new staff that [the people we are supporting] are experiencing anxiety and intervene before it gets too far.” 

As the pilot is still in the early stages, user feedback isn’t yet available. “Some folks are just getting used to wearing the watch and using the technology,” says McVicker. But she’s hopeful that the approach will produce benefits for both participants and staff. “I look at the people we are supporting,” she says. “If someone could see that I was starting to get anxious right away and step in to help me, what a better quality of life I could have. I think it really is such a game changer for both the supporters and the people we support.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that the pilot program involved adults with autism. In fact, it involves adults with a range of intellectual and developmental disabilities. TVO.org regrets the error.

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