Diagnosing Autism? There's an App for That!

Phoenix just got one step closer to becoming the global center for diagnosing autism after an iPhone app called NODA™ opened to the public yesterday-- and no, this has nothing to do with the measles vaccine.

NODA, for Naturalistic Observation Diagnostic Assessment, allows parents to upload videos of their children and communicate with clinical experts to get an accurate autism diagnosis. Getting an in-person diagnostic test is a notoriously challenging and often-lengthy process, particularly for families who live far away from big cities. It's not atypical for it to take months, or even a year, to get an appointment with a specialist. And because early intervention with autism is key to successfully treating or reducing symptoms, waiting is exactly the opposite of what you want to do.

Ron Oberleitner, CEO of Behavior Imaging Solutions, the company behind NODA, can hardly contain his excitement when discussing the official launch of this product. Twelve years ago, his son was diagnosed with autism, and he knows how hard it can be to get in with a specialist. This app is his contribution to making the process more efficient, accessible, and affordable to families.

(The app costs $500, which his about half the cost of seeing a specialist in-person, though the goal is to get insurance companies to cover the expense eventually.)

The entire NODA process, which takes about two weeks, is relatively simple: parents upload videos of their child in a few prescribed situations, as well as videos they believe demonstrate problematic behavior. An expert views the videos and begins a dialogue with the parents, working with them until a diagnosis is reached.

It is exactly what would happen at an in-office assessment, Oberleitner says; it's just done remotely. He's confident about accuracy for two reasons: first, parents are capturing real-life scenarios, thereby avoiding the problem of children acting differently in front of doctors in an unfamiliar setting. And second, clinicians conduct the same surveys and have the same conversations with parents that they would in an in-person autism assessment, and this data is a critical part of any behavioral diagnostic process.

NODA certainly is not without critics--the most obvious question being if a doctor can accurately diagnosis someone without meeting them, particularly for an observational test. NODA enthusiasts say yes, and point to a recent National Institute of Mental Health-funded study that gave the app an 88 percent accuracy rate (it was 94 percent accurate with the control subjects who didn't have autism.)

This study, like Monday's public launch of the technology, was a collaboration between Behavior Imaging Solutions, Georgia Tech, the Phoenix-based Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC), and the Barrow Neurological Institute at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

SARRC, which has been known for years as a world-renowned autism research center, provided, and will continue to provide, clinical experts behind the app. Because it's based in Phoenix, and because all of the clinical trials took place here, Valley residents are the first to get access to the new technology. (SARRC Vice President & Director of Research, Dr. Christopher Smith, couldn't be reached before publication.)

The whole NODA team is excited about opening the product to local families, but members also hope it will be available to families around the world in the not-too-distant future. Remote and digital services--from MOOCs to Skype-based therapy sessions--represent the next frontier for healthcare and education services, and the global proliferation of smartphones has helped to make these technologies feasible and more widely accepted.

When asked, Oberleitner says he thinks NODA technology could be used to help diagnosis dementia, or even be used as a teaching tool for future clinicians (with parental consent, of course, he adds.)

"We want to use tools like this to make healthcare different," he says, adding that it has great potential for international clients who may live in countries with few autism resources. "And we're hoping that Phoenix will become the center of diagnosing autism around the world."

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser