"This was in 1998, and the hepatitis B shot was a relatively new thing," says Karen. "There wasn't a lot of research out there, and I didn't know anything about it. I was still uncertain but said, 'Go ahead.' It was pretty quickly afterwards that Jacob changed."
He regressed and became very introverted, quiet and hyperfocused to the point where people would be talking to him and even say his name and he wouldn't hear or respond. Simultaneously he became extremely oppositional and experienced profound anxiety, headaches and stomach aches that would wake him up screaming at 3 a.m.
Desperate to understand what was going on with her firstborn, over the next five years Karen took Jacob to multiple physical and psychological therapists who said things like, "You're just not being firm enough with your discipline. You need to give him stronger consequences." It was ridiculous, says Karen. "They just basically told us that we were bad parents."
When Jacob was almost 10 years old, a doctor finally made a tentative diagnosis of Asperger syndrome and autism. "I'd studied the brain, and I'd heard of autism," says Karen, "but that was back in early 2005, and I really didn't know anything about it and neither did the doctor."
He told her there wasn't anything he could do and that she was going to have to research autism on her own. But none of the bookstores where she lived in San Luis Obispo, CA, had books on the subject.
Finally, she visited a store in Berkeley. Coincidentally the owner's son had Asperger's and autism, and she carried some books on autism. "I picked up a book and started reading it right there in the store, and it was like I was reading about Jacob," says Karen.
"I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, this is him!' It makes me cry even now thinking about it."
Eventually a psychiatrist specializing in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) confirmed that Jacob had Asperger syndrome and was fairly high functioning, but with the worst case of oppositional defiant disorder she had ever seen in her career.
"Try to parent that!" jokes Karen. "You sort of go through this relief now that you have an answer. And then you have grief. And then it's, 'Okay, now what do I do?'"
It was a behavioral therapist who kicked her fully into taking action on her own. "After several sessions, the woman took me aside and said, 'You really need to drug him. If you don't drug him, you will really be doing him a disservice and making life really hard for him.'
"I couldn't believe it. I said, 'I am not going to drug my child!' With my holistic background working with the brain and my craniosacral background, I knew the brain can feel its way back if you can just get whatever is in its way out of the way. So, I went to work."
Today—after 14 years of Karen's intense research into the many causes and triggers of autism, developing treatment protocols and working with her son on her own— Jacob is fully recovered and away at college.
"I was so determined to figure out what was going on and to help him get better. I'm just sorry it took so much time researching, going through all of the trial and error trying foods and supplements.—they're expensive and then you have to try them for a decent length of time, a couple of months or so to see if it's going to do anything, and then continuing research, reading countless books.
"I spent $150,000 and thousands and thousands of hours researching. But it was worth it, because not only have I recovered my son, it has put me in a position to help others."
Know what you're dealing with
The prevalence of autism is rapidly escalating, and it's more common in boys than girls by a ratio of approximately five to one.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently estimates that one out of every 68 children in the US is on the autism spectrum, a figure that's up 30 percent from 2008 and up more than 200 percent since the year 2000.
ASD is characterized by a range of deficits in social communication and interaction, repetitive patterns of limited behavior and interest, frequent oppositional behavior and emotional dysregulation along with a wide range of other physical and health issues. Until about 15 years ago, it was regularly misdiagnosed and misunderstood. To this day, the root cause of the majority of autism cases has defied understanding.
For years it was thought to be primarily a genetic disorder passed on by the parents, but today chromosomal testing reveals that approximately 80 percent of children with ASD have a normal genome.
A growing number of brain studies show high levels of neuroinflammation and neuronal damage in people with ASD, indicating that something else is going on besides inheritance and developmental mishaps.
It was this "something else"—getting to the root causes of her son's autism—that drove Karen.
She refused to accept simple answers or "We just don't know." She also refused to lay the blame solely on Jacob's fateful HepB shot in 2005. That it played a role in triggering in her son's autism, she has no doubt. But common sense and years working as an alternative health therapist told her the dynamics at play were much more complex than that.
Diet was the first thing she zeroed in on (see box, page 31). Diet had been a large part of the Defeat Autism Now (DAN) protocol, founded in 1995, which promoted the view that autism is a disorder characterized by a lowered immune response caused by a combination of certain foods, most importantly gluten from grains and casein from dairy products, as well as external toxins (especially from vaccines).
Although the protocol was discontinued in 2011, Karen discovered that diet was indeed a vital key—and not just the elimination of gluten and casein.
Through a process of trial and error, she learned she had to also eliminate sugar, processed carbohydrates, food dyes, MSG and aspartame.
"It was hard changing his diet when we started because kids become very addicted to the opiates that are created in the body from eating gluten and casein," she says. (Wheat and dairy break down into peptides called gluten exorphins and casomorphins, which mimic opiate drugs, attaching to the same receptor sites in the brain.)
Cutting out refined sugars wasn't easy either, because the Candida in Jacob's gut created wild cravings for a sugar fix. But slowly his gut health improved, and the cravings died along with the Candida.
Karen also put him on a regime of prebiotics and probiotics. "Gut health is vital," she says. "The gut controls the brain and houses 80 percent of the immune system, so you have to work with the gut and support the organs of detoxification and the lymphatic system, because these kids have really poor detoxification."
Like so many parents of children with autism, Karen vividly recalls the first benchmark moment
of change as she got Jacob's diet and gut health under control. "Jacob was usually wild and all over the place," she says. "One morning I was in the kitchen preparing breakfast and I looked toward the dining room table and there Jacob was, just sitting there normally, talking to his younger sister. It was stunning."
Clearing the toxins
Heavy metal detox was the next thing Karen tackled. She knew she'd had mercury amalgam fillings done when she was pregnant and had no idea what else she'd been exposed to.
"I learned that when you're pregnant, the body of the baby is used by the mother's body as a conduit to detoxify, so if you have a lot of toxins, your baby is getting all of that."
To clear Jacob's system of mercury toxicity, instead of using dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA, a pharmaceutical chelator used to treat lead, mercury and arsenic poisoning), which has side-effects such as diarrhea, weight loss, fever and flu-like symptoms, Karen used a zeolite formula (microporous alkaline aluminosilicate minerals) to draw the mercury out of his cells.
"DMSA isn't safe for our kids," she says. "It's not discriminatory, so it pulls out the good minerals as well as the bad, further depleting their bodies of calcium, magnesium and other things they need. It also allows for reabsorption of the toxins once they've been released.
"Zeolyte tastes like water, and you can spray it in their mouth because you've got to do things that are easy for them. It doesn't allow for any reabsorption of the toxin, and it won't pull out the good minerals."
Detoxing from mercury, however, did temporarily jack Jacob's autism symptoms through the roof. "When testosterone and mercury come together it's like a bomb going off," Karen says. "It really exacerbates the effects of mercury.
"That's one of the reasons why the boy-to-girl ratio for autism is so much worse for boys. Girls have protective estrogen in their system that will shield the brain. Testosterone has an opposite effect. This is why we often find very high testosterone levels in girls with autism."
Even though he was in the process of detoxification, when he hit puberty the mercury in Jacob's system combined with the elevated testosterone levels, and all of a sudden he was in total rebellion, refusing to go school or cooperate with Karen's efforts.
"It was constant battling for a while, and there were times I thought I was just going to have a stroke," she says.
"We had just moved, so I had no support system. My husband worked out of town four days a week, so I was basically a single mom with my little girl and my son. For a while it was pretty traumatic."
The next critical stage of recovery for Jacob was dealing with coinfections. Karen found that most doctors working with autistic patients either didn't know about dealing with this, or they couldn't identify and handle the coinfections properly.
"Over 90 percent of children with autism have Lyme disease," she says bluntly. "It mimics the symptoms of autism. It's really hard to diagnose and is highly prevalent. So are mold biotoxins, which affect the gut and the brain, stirring up a chronic inflammatory response."
Dr Jodie Dashore, PhD (Integrative Medicine), OTD (Neurology), MSc (Neurology), a leading global naturopathic practitioner in biotoxin illness, ASD and Lyme disease, agrees that dealing with coinfections is a huge part of autism recovery.
"Research shows that infections like mycoplasma pneumonia and Lyme disease can suppress the immunoglobulin part of the immune system—the antibodies the body creates to fight infection—because their job is to suppress the host's defenses so they can grow," says Dashore. "That's what they do."
Dashore, who lives and works in New Jersey and is a close friend and consulting associate of Karen's, also has a fully recovered autistic son, Brian, who had 10 false-negative tests for Lyme before finally being properly diagnosed.
"It was a nightmare," recalls Dashore. "He was barely verbal, low IQ, in a wheelchair, not growing, head shaking, with vocal tics. I had to carry him on my back up and down the stairs and into the bathroom. He wasn't even able to turn in bed. We were being told it was bone marrow infections and sent to cancer specialists.
Eventually we found out he had 11 comorbid infections, many of which had crossed the blood brain barrier, including strep, mycoplasma (mold), Lyme, Babesia, intestinal parasites and yeasts."
After Dashore treated Brian for mycoplasma, his two and half years of severe asthma disappeared. "Once all of the coinfections were cleared, his autism went away," she says.
Because his condition was life-threatening, Dashore used a combination of antibiotics along with natural detoxification as needed until the infections cleared sufficiently that she could switch the protocol and rely more heavily on natural products, using antibiotics only if necessary until his immune system got better.
Like Jacob, today Brian is fully independent and away at college, where he is a straight A student. Not surprisingly, he is following a premed track and is focused on a career helping others recover from autism as he has. He even has his own Lyme-dedicated informational website called www.teenlymehub.com.
The final step in Karen's work with Jacob included brain support with supplements and repair with craniosacral therapy, which balances the bones of the head that surround the brain. These bones can easily get displaced and pushed out of their normal movement patterns.
When that happens, the affected part of the brain can't function properly. "For example, the occipital bone at the very back of the head, the lower bone where it connects to the neck, is very easily destabilized—in fact it's easily destabilized at birth," says Karen.
"Displaced cranial bones can pinch on the vagus nerve, which affects respiration. So if you have a child who has asthma it could be that. It also affects digestion and is a really big contributor to anxiety."
If the temporal bones around the ear are misaligned, she says, speech and balance are affected. Misaligned temporal bones are also associated with anger issues. These kinds of adjustments can be done throughout the entire recovery process, which, Karen insists, takes time.
"People ask me how long it will take, and I say, 'If you're in autism recovery, you're talking healing biology and that is a process. Whether it takes you one year or four years, everybody's timeline is different depending on the nature of their biology."
Four years ago, Karen wrote and published a book on her autism recovery protocol titled Naturally Recovering Autism: The Complete Step-By-Step Resource Handbook for Parents. She also started a web-based program called Autism Moms Mentoring Program that takes parents of children with autism through a step-by-step process of recovery.
Karen's four-step program follows the comprehensive yet holistic approach she took with Jacob. Today, both the book and her program are being used by parents in over 40 countries.
"If you have a comprehensive 360° approach, if you have a practitioner who understands the full 360°, you can expect an array of improvements," says Dashore. "Improvements all the way to recovery. I see clients from 49 countries, and I'm seeing the same degree of improvement for the kids on the spectrum that I see, subject to vast cultural differences and vast dietary differences."
"But," Dashore continues, "all in all, what I see is that with a mother's love, a father's love, and a lot of patience, a lot of hard work finding the right practitioner, it's amazing what happens."
Autism diet basics
The health of the gut is directly linked to the health of the brain and therefore to the symptoms of autism. According to Karen Thomas, as much as 80 percent of the immune system resides in the gut, so if the gut is not healthy, then the immune system is compromised. It's a vicious cycle that, thankfully, can be broken by eliminating harmful foods from the diet.
Gluten & dairy. Says Karen, "Roughly 60 percent of children who cut out these two food groups improve within a short period of time. Their parents report more positive behavior, improved concentration and better sleep, among other major improvements."
Processed carbohydrates & sugar. When it comes to gut health, these sugars feed the overgrowth of Candida (yeast) in our system, which damages the gut lining, preventing beneficial nutrients from being absorbed and leading to a host of physical and emotional ailments.
Food dyes & coloring. The dyes used in foods, drugs and cosmetics contain lead, mercury, arsenic, benzidine and harmful chemicals and have been linked to hyperactivity, hypersensitivity, asthma, behavioral problems and other conditions.
MSG. Monosodium glutamate or MSG is a flavor enhancer that excites the neurons in the brain to death—known as an excitotoxin. It affects the hypothalamus, which in turn impacts our hormones, triggering headaches, asthma, anger, memory loss, reduction of growth hormone and more.
Aspartame. This artificial sweetener causes excitotoxicity damage to the brain and raises levels of the neurotransmitter phenylalanine, contributing to many mental and behavioral disorders.
Testimonials from Autism Moms Mentoring Program
Karen says that most of the time she works with moms. But the very first member to join her program was Chamberline Owen from Nigeria, a father desperate to help his son.
Two-year-old Pierce had just gotten home after a two-week hospital stay treating autoimmune reaction, Candida overgrowth, rheumatoid arthritis and a very severe strep infection.
He was nonverbal, with no eye contact, antisocial, "stimming" (self-stimulating through repetitive behaviors, movements or sounds), and hyperactive, with poor sleep patterns and severe gastrointestinal issues.
"In the hospital he went through all kinds of antibiotics, some of which he had a bad reaction to," says Owen. "I swore to myself he wouldn't spend another night again in a hospital."
His next step was contacting Karen. Two years later, he has dropped out of the program because Pierce is doing so well. "I am glad to report that Pierce no longer stims, no hand flap, his sleep time has reduced, and he now says words like shoes, chocolate, etc.
"Now we can tell him to go do something or run some limited errand, and he does it. He will walk to a stranger and hug them in greeting, saying 'Hi.' The other day he saw his Barney stuffed doll and said 'Look at Barney!' I was overwhelmed."
When two friends, both physicians, visited from the UK, Owen says they were surprised
to see the level of interaction Pierce had with their kids. "They commented that as far as they were concerned, they could see nothing wrong with him, that he behaved like a normal four-year-old who was just slow to speech and would outgrow it."
"My son is six, and he was mostly nonverbal and had major digestive issues (constipation) since he was a baby. He has been hyperactive, destructive, noisy, has learning problems, obsessive-compulsive disorder, repetitive clapping and inappropriate noises.
"He was also recently diagnosed with both Lyme and strep (PANDAS). He has Candida and heavy metals. He has sensory issues especially when it comes to some types of clothing. He will not wear shoes for long and bolts/runs from class at any given chance.
"Since we started Karen's program, we have noticed that he has become so calm. It's truly amazing when you do not have to lock up all doors. I can leave him alone in a room for five to 10 minutes without him destroying and breaking stuff like before.
"His constipation issues have reduced, he's slowly learning his numbers, alphabet, colors, shapes, etc. He's not completely verbal, but he can now answer some questions and repeat whatever you say. He has repetitive speech and even though it's not perfectly clear, it's progress to us.
"We are hoping and praying that we can see more positive changes as we continue on with the program."
What to do if your child has ASD
Both Karen Thomas, founder of Naturally Recovering Autism, and Dr Jodie Dashore cautioned against listing any specific nutritional supplements to help mitigate symptoms of autism.
Since every child (and adult) is different, a supplement that might work for one person won't be as effective for another. This is why in her recovery program, Karen teaches parents how to muscle test.
Also known as applied kinesiology or manual muscle testing, this purports to be an alternative health method of diagnosing structural, muscular, chemical and mental ailments as well as determining the proper foods, supplements, medicines and dosages that are appropriate for an individual with a particular condition.
The same thing is true of dosages. "I cannot advise any dosages," says Dashore, who runs an organic herb farm, raising and producing her own herbal treatments for her patients. "Everybody has their own biological blueprint.
"One drop of an herb might give a six-foot, 200-pound man Herxheimer symptoms—detoxification die off symptoms such as fever, chills, hypotension, headache and anxiety—where I might have an 11-year-old child who's doing 60 drops three times a day. It's all about bio-individualized nutraceuticals."
Testing, however, is an important part of a treatment plan. "You can't just give a child a life sentence of autism without understanding that autism can be a symptom, not a diagnosis," says Dashore.
"It can be a symptom of something underlying. So you have to test for pathogens, toxins, pesticides, for anything that can compromise the immune system and the brain."
The following is a list of tests Dashore recommends. However, like every other part of the process, testing needs to be individualized as well.
Suggested autism tests
• Urine test for glyphosate
• Urine panel for Lyme and other coinfections
• Urine mycotoxin panels
• Test for organic acids
• Comprehensive stool parasitology
• Nasal swabs
• Shoemaker's protocol for chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS) diagnosis
• Mitochondrial swab
• Methylation profile (normal metabolism of methionine is critical for cellular methylation of DNA, proteins and neurotransmitters)
• GI-MAP (Gastrointestinal Microbial Assay Plus)
• Blood work for viruses and bacteria
• Hormone panels
The science of recovery
Karen Thomas developed her four-step program through years of research and trial and error in her quest to find solutions to her own son's symptoms. Every step is supported by scientific evidence and intended to provide a simple framework for individualized treatment strategies.
Heal the gut: An elimination diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, vitamins and minerals has been shown to relieve autism symptoms (as well as gastrointestinal disorders).1 A gluten-free and casein (dairy)-free diet has also been lnked to reduced symptoms of autism.2 Studies also show an association of gut dysfunction and gut dysbiosis with ASD symptoms.3
Heavy metal detox: Exposure to heavy metals such as lead and mercury have been linked to the development of autism by triggering neuroinflammation and excitotoxicity.4 Immune-related excitotoxicity—where inflammation in the brain leads to dangerously high levels of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, triggering a cascade of events that disrupts brain function—is both directly and indirectly linked to autism.5
This inflammation can result from persistent infections and particularly environmental excitotoxins such as aluminum and fluoride. Dr Chris Exsley, PhD, professor of bioinorganic chemistry at Keele University in Staffordshire, UK, has conducted research suggesting that aluminum contributes to autism and that individuals with autism may be more susceptible to aluminum toxicity.
"Anything that reduces human exposure to aluminum should be beneficial," Exsley says. "And a significant body of anecdotal information now suggests that regular drinking of silicon-rich mineral waters benefits some individuals with autism because silicon-rich mineral waters help the body to excrete aluminum in urine and probably in sweat too."
Exposure to mercury is also an established risk factor for autism. In a review of 91 studies on the topic, 74 percent found a connection between mercury and ASD.6 And the baby teeth from children with autism were found to contain more toxic lead and less of the essential nutrients zinc and manganese than teeth from children without autism.7
Clear coinfections: Infection with the Lyme bacteria, borreliosis, has been linked to mental disorders including ASD and autism-like symptoms.8 New brain scanning techniques show that, indeed, brain inflammation is related to Lyme disease,9 as well as being a tell-tale sign of autism.10
Exposure to molds and their mycotoxins has also been found to negatively impact the nervous system through immune cell activation and thus contribute to ASD.11
Karen Thomas: www.naturallyrecoveringautism.com
Dr Jodie A. Dashore: www.bionexushealth.com
Brian Dashore: www.teenlymehub.com