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Bob McClay/KTAR

PHOENIX -- Four-year-old Xavier is a loving kid who loves to play with toy trains. His mother, 24-year-old Crystal Columbus, said he's a great kid.

"He loves doing funny things, and he'll be very helpful at times," Columbus said. She laughs and adds "this kid has more energy than I know what to do with."

When he was about 18 months old, Columbus knew that Xavier was different.

"He met all of his milestones as far as walking and crawling, but not talking," said Columbus, who is a single mother.

For two years, Columbus went to doctors to try to find out what's wrong with Xavier. The state tested him for autism, but Columbus said it has been reluctant to diagnose him that way.

"By the state, you have to have a certain amount of points to be diagnosed with autism. He'd always miss it by one or two points."

Columbus knew Xavier needed treatment, and that it was taking too long to get it. So she turned to the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center.

"The system is broken," said Dr. Christopher Smith, the Vice President and Research Director for SARRC. "There is not clear communication among parents, to professionals, to the state that is granting services."

SARRC is helping to develop a new technology that could change that.

"We call this project ‘NODA,' the Naturalistic Observation Diagnostic Assessment," Smith said. "It's an online method where the parent records four videos of their child. Once the parent uploads those videos, professionals on the other end of the platform will be logging in, watching the videos and tagging the behaviors that are in support of a developmental delay.

"If we feel that the child meets the criteria for autism, we'll issue a report back to the child's general pediatrician, who can then advise his client appropriately."

The method could cut delays in diagnosis by one year.

"You get your treatments started a year earlier, and you get a year's increased potential for that child to reach their full potential for functioning," Smith said.

SARRC plans to start testing the program this summer. Large scale studies could start next year.

Smith said that Xavier has now been diagnosed with autism. Columbus has several hopes and prayers for her son.

"I pray he learns how to cope with his disability, learns from it, learns how to give back, support and teach others," she said.

Bob McClay, Reporter

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