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SARRC to test program for earlier autism diagnosis

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.

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About the Author


Years with the company: I started on January 2, 2006.

Education: I was born in San Antonio, Texas, but we moved to Phoenix when I was one-year-old in 1957. I grew up here and graduated from Alhambra High School and attended Phoenix College.

Family: I am married to my wife Rene', who is a librarian in the Washington school district. During free time, I may be found playing basketball in the driveway with my son, Devin. He's also keeping me busy with school, Little League, and playing in chess tournaments around the Valley.

Favorite food: Lots of favorite food, but our favorite restaurant is Fajitas.

Favorite spot in Arizona: The Little America Hotel in Flagstaff.

Favorite news memory: We have to go back to October 15, 1979. I was a country music air personality at KROP Radio in Brawley, California, when we had a 6.7 earthquake. Thankfully, there were no deaths and only minor injuries, but the entire community was pretty freaked out and listening to the station on their transistor radios. I would not want to go through an earthquake again, but it sure was a great night to work in radio and see how it can make a difference in people's lives.

First job: Working as a stringer for 'The Arizona Republic' at high school football games. My first real job was flipping burgers at the old Sandy's Hamburgers at 51st Avenue and Indian School Road. My first radio job was as announcer at KALJ radio in Yuma in 1977.

First concert: Doug Oldham gospel concert in the 1970s at the old East High School in Phoenix.

Favorite sports team: Phoenix Roadrunners minor league hockey. My dad took me to a game when I was in grade school, and I was hooked. I wanted to be a radio hockey play-by-play man. I used to take my cassette recorder and sit up in the rafters of the Coliseum and do play-by-play. It was great later in life to also take my son to Roadrunners games. Too bad the team just folded, I'll miss them. (Going to the Coyotes is fun, but they're not "my" team.)

Outside interests: My family and I are active in our church - Northern Hills Community Church in Phoenix. We enjoy going to movies, sporting events, and like to vacation at the Beach Cottages in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego. And I love to play catch, basketball, football with my son.

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