“He comes up and says, ‘Mom, I love you so much. You’re so beautiful.’ His autism recovery has really given us the ability to get to know who he really is on the inside.”
– Terri Hirning
Autism. Recovery. Two words that don’t seem to fit together.
But for the Hirning family, that’s very much a reality.
Their son, Joshua*, was diagnosed with autism shortly before his fifth birthday, but had shown signs of the disorder since infancy.
Yet while Joshua was still a toddler, his mom had started searching for answers to help his brain work better.
It began with believing it was possible and then demanded dogged determination and a spirit of experimentation.
But the payoff kept them going. Today, Joshua has grown into a thriving 16-year-old about to earn his rank of Eagle Scout.
It’s perhaps his voice, though, that they treasure most – because they had to wait so patiently for it.
“He comes up and says, ‘Mom, I love you so much. You’re so beautiful.’ His autism recovery has really given us the ability to get to know who he really is on the inside,” says his mom, Terri.
Missing Developmental Milestones
A few months following the arrival of her firstborn, Terry Hirning sensed something wasn’t right. Her infant son didn’t make eye contact like other babies his age.
Joshua also didn’t sleep or nurse well, and screamed day and night.
As certain milestones were mentioned in the baby books and pediatrician handouts, Terri noted that her son wasn’t hitting them on schedule.
Baby babble didn’t turn into formed words and sentences. And in toddlerhood, he preferred to do his own thing instead of interacting with other children.
“Back then, even mainstream pediatricians didn’t know that much about autism,” Terri says. “But we knew things were amiss.”
Experimenting with Diet and Nutrition
Back in college, Terri had set out to be a doctor – until chemistry class dissuaded her from that path.
Things were different, however, once she was a driven mom on a mission to find answers for her son. Soon, she immersed herself in the biomedical community, including working for a lab. She dove into research on gut dysbiosis, amino acids and more.
Diet and nutrition emerged as some of the key interventions to help reduce brain inflammation associated with autism. On the suggestion of a friend, an occupational therapist, the Hirning family started removing potential food triggers from Joshua’s diet.
Dairy was the first to go. Not long after that, they eliminated gluten as well. For Joshua’s third birthday, they served a gluten-free, dairy-free cake.
“I started with diet and we saw things pretty immediately,” she says.
Joshua’s digestion – long-troubled and causing a distended belly – improved rapidly.
With food sensitivity testing, they uncovered personal triggers for him, leading the family to cut soy and anything with artificial dyes.
They took it a step further after consulting with Julie Matthews of Nourishing Hope, a nutrition expert for autism and related disorders. The family learned that a group of foods called oxalates could also trigger inflammation. Oxalic acid is an organic compound found in many plant-based foods, including leafy greens, fruits, nuts and seeds.
According to an article by Matthews, “High oxalate in the body can be a factor in many chronic conditions; including digestive issues, autoimmune disorders and neurological conditions. Oxalates affect mitochondrial function and can create inflammation; thus influencing every system in the body.”
Oxalates may not be a problem for all, but can particularly be a problem for those without a healthy microbiome.
In addition to following a low-oxalate diet, the Hirnings experimented with other anti-inflammatory diets, including the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and paleo – both of which reduce or eliminate grains.
At the same time, they added fish oil and turmeric supplements to reduce inflammation.
Balancing the Gut
Digestive testing revealed that Joshua had Candida overgrowth and the bacteria, clostridia, both of which can contribute to behavioral problems. Terri attributed her son’s giddy laughing, sometimes in the middle of the night, to Candida. Clostridia, by contrast, more likely caused the high levels of frustration they saw in him.
The new diet helped, as well as adding soil-based probiotics and Biocidin, a botanical product that supports digestive balance.
For a while, Joshua had been speaking, but primarily to himself. Addressing his gut dysbiosis seemed to clear the path for interactive speech.
“I had videos from the playground where he was starting to talk to kids,” she says. “He wasn’t just talking to himself. It was amazing.”
With Joshua’s gut imbalances turned around, next the Hirnings moved on to other supplements. They began vitamin B-12 injections to support his methylation pathways.
In the body, methylation is responsible for biochemical reactions in the body that regulate the cardiovascular, neurological, reproductive, and detoxification systems.
Reportedly, approximately 60 percent of those in the U.S. have a genetic mutation that makes it challenging for their bodies to create enough 5-MTHF, the active form of folic acid.
Terri says her son is one of these “poor methylaters” who needs support with methylated forms of B vitamins.
When the family added B-12 injections, Joshua started sleeping through the night and making eye contact. And fortunately, the screaming and meltdowns calmed down.
An Autism Diagnosis
A couple of years after the Hirnings began interventions, they had already made tremendous progress in Joshua’s social interactions, speech, sleep and digestion. But some symptoms remained.
Doctors finally gave their son’s set of symptoms a diagnosis: autism – exactly what they had long suspected.
“I was sitting across from the developmental pediatrician where they were saying, ‘Yes, your child meets the diagnostic criteria for autism and basically, there’s nothing we can do for that. You’re going to want to look at long-term home placement. He’s probably never going to get married, have a family, live independently.’ And I just remember sitting there thinking, ‘That’s not how this story is going to end.’ There has to be something.”
All their work so far had given them the hope and resolve to keep searching for the right approaches for their son.
For preschool, Joshua had been primarily in a special needs classroom. He spent a small amount of time in a typical classroom each day, which could lead to sensory overload and meltdowns.
After a summer break, just before he turned five, Joshua returned to school. This time, though, he was able to spend more time in the regular classroom – a breakthrough in the eyes of his teachers and parents.
Yet, Terri knew there was still the potential for improvement. She wasn’t in denial or looking to change her son. Rather, she wanted to help him live his best life.
“It wasn’t about, ‘I don’t want my child to have autism,’” she says. “It was about, ‘I want my child to look at me and say, ‘I love you, Mom.’”
Addressing Immunity, Anxiety and OCD
Up to that point, diet and probiotics were helping support their son’s immunity. Next, they began low-dose naltrexone (LDN). Typically, LDN is a pharmaceutical used to help break opioid addiction. However, with this off-label use, it’s been found to boost immunity.
With GABA and L-theanine supplements added, Joshua’s anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies eased.
They also consulted with Dr. Kurt Woeller, a doctor of osteopathy with a particular emphasis on autism.
In consultation with Dr. Woeller, they tried Respen-A, a diluted form of the herb Rauwolfia serpentine that’s applied topically with a patch. However, doing so required Joshua to take high doses of calcium and stop some of the other supplements, including B-12, fish oil and turmeric.
While they did see progress with Respen-A, Terri wasn’t comfortable with the high levels of calcium, or with discontinuing some of the earlier, helpful interventions. Thus they soon stopped Respen-A in favor of other forms of homeopathy.
Layering in Detox
Based on testing, Terri knew her son didn’t detox environmental toxins well. They tried numerous detox methods, including sauna sweats, Epsom salt baths and the supplement glutathione, to help his own body better shed environmental toxins. But still, his body retained toxins too much for their liking.
As part of the autism community, Terri had heard about technology called IonCleanse. The foot detox bath uses charged particles called ions to attract and neutralize toxins and heavy metals and pull them out through the feet.
It sounds dubious, Terri is the first to admit. Initially, she was very skeptical, as she often was at the many treatments presented as autism solutions.
However, when the makers of IonCleanse reached out to autism families for testing with the technology, she signed up.
Prior to starting, Joshua took the Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist (ATEC) and scored a 25, considered a relatively high score – even after all their work and progress. Typically, the higher the score, the greater the impairment.
Then, they tried IonCleanse for six months. Immediately, Terri saw improvements.
“I saw changes in his cognitive functioning after a single session,” she says. ”For me, as a complete skeptic of this technology, I was blown away. I probably wouldn’t have been able to be converted if I hadn’t seen it in my own child.”
After six months of regular use, Joshua again took the ATEC, this time scoring a four.
“That was a pretty significant shift in a child where we had done diet, supplements, homeopathy and a detox protocol. We had been working with a specialist for many years to be able to push the needle and that was really exciting.”
Terri went on to study IonCleanse for her doctoral dissertation on detoxing glyphosate, the pesticide found in Roundup.
The Hirnings continue to count IonCleanse as a major component of their detox regimen, even traveling with it.
Living a Typical Teen Life
In a constant cycle of trial and error, Terri kept fine-tuning and adjusting all the supplements and approaches to optimize Joshua’s regimen. With each, she logged the reactions, progress and regressions.
Because of her experience, Terri went back to school to become an integrative health coach who started Real Food Mum to provide hope and help for other individuals and families.
Today, Joshua remains on a gluten-free, dairy-free diet most of the time, but occasionally diverges without any noticeable setbacks.
Terri describes him as caring, witty and empathetic, the kid who will go talk to someone who’s being bullied or looks lonely.
He’s into rock and heavy metal music, reads avidly and loves all things Star Wars. Soon, he’ll earn his Eagle Scout project, building a tiny library at a local elementary school.
Terri’s confident that her son’s future is bright.
“He’s going to be just fine,” she says. “He’s going to have a job. He’s going to find a partner. He’s going to be able to live independently.”
The road has been challenging for the Hirnings, but the rewards are worth it. Terri encourages other parents to believe that recovery is possible.
“It’s really important to have hope that you can have an intervention or find that practitioner that is going to lead you down the path to improved health and wellness for your child,” she says. “And that’s really important for parents to hang on to.”
*Name changed to respect the privacy of a minor.
Insights from the Hirning Family
- Take baby steps – Try one intervention at a time and log any changes.
- Be patient – Progress doesn’t happen overnight.
- Become an expert in your child – You know your child better than anyone else, and whether something works or doesn’t.
- Know there’s no ONE best thing – What works is different for every child.
- Educate your kids – Help kids notice reactions between what they eat and their behavior or how they feel.
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