Birmingham--It's the dinner hour at the Martin home in Highland Lakes, just south of Birmingham. Tracey and Mike Martin and their five children gather around a large oak table. Jake is 11 years old - big brother to four-year-old quadruplets Adam, Sam, Gabriel and Sophia. Two of the four quads have been diagnosed with Autism, but mom, Tracey, believes they can recover from it with the help of a good diet and vitamin supplements.
The kids gobble up gluten-free and casein-free spaghetti and meat-sauce. Gluten and Casein are proteins found in wheat, rye, oats, barley and diary products. The Martin children children can't digest those proteins and Mrs.Martin says it was affecting their behavior.
"We first started the diet with them probably a year-and-a-half ago. We started off first taking out the dairy. We noticed he (Sam) started talking and um, Gabriel, his eye contact improved."
Sam is mildly autistic. His mother is encouraged by the improvement she sees. Gabe is developmentally behind his brothers and sister. He communicates through hand signals because he's still not talking. But he too has responded to the new diet.
"He used to wake up at night wanting milk, almost craving it. He started sleeping better at night. His whole demeanor and everything changed with the milk. Then gradually he started changing with the wheat products and things like that and dyes and nitrates. We saw great improvement. I mean the diagnosis hasn't been reversed, but there definitely have been improvements.
Reporter: "Would you say that autism can be reversed?"
"I can tell you personally of one case where autism can be reversed. In fact I'm the one who made the diagnosis, then reversed the diagnosis."
Caroline Gomez is the Co-Director of the Auburn Autism Center at Auburn University. Dr. Gomez did not see the child for a period of ten months. During that time, the child's mother provided biomedical intervention. She sought to remove toxins from her son's bloodstream, and instill metabolic and nutritional balance. Gomez then re-evaluated the child.
"In fact, he did not meet any of the criteria for autism anymore. And it was a startling change. And that was very startling to me knowing that autism has a genetic component, it would stand to reason that autism could not be recovered from."
Such a dramatic turnaround has forced Dr. Gomez to reconsider what doctors have long believed about autism.
"We have to wonder though does that mean we have a sub-group of children who don't in fact have a genetic component. However, based on their mercury poisoning or environmental toxin exposure actually have symptoms that mimic autism. And so we may indeed have a subgroup of autism-children with autistic-like behaviors who actually receive a diagnosis of autism, who might not actually have autism."
The number of autism cases has increased 500% or more since the early 1990's. That's a staggering increase that some attribute to better - or perhaps more liberal -- diagnosis criteria. Some researchers wonder whether increased exposure to mercury, through the environment and childhood vaccines is the blame. It's known that mercury can cause birth defects, including retardation and learning disorders. It can also damage the brain and kidneys. There's no proven link between autism and thimerosal - the mercury-containing organic compound widely used as preservative in vaccines. In fact, it's a hotly debated topic in autism research. There's no research to support a link between mercury and autism, but scientists continue to examine it and The Food and Drug Administration is working has worked with vaccine manufacturers to reduce or eliminate thimerosal from vaccines.
The Autism Research Institute says physicians who have been working with autistic children have reported "extremely good results in improving the health and behavior of autistic children when the mercury in the children's bodies were removed by a systematic process of detoxification." A key issue: the younger the child is when you start detoxification and dietary changes, the better.
"Did you have any questions about your prescription?"
"No. Not any at all."
"Can I get you to sign that real quick? Oh righty. Thank you very much."
At the Wellness Pharmacy in Homewood, people needing dietary supplements, vitamins and other products flow through the front doors.
"I would say 60 to 70% of the parents that come in here see a dramatic improvement in behavior, verbalization, socialization, with some, just diet alone."
Angie Chatwood is a certified compounding pharmacist.
"The reason and it's not with all children, but many of the autistic children first lack the enzymes to break down food groups such as dairy or wheat."
Studies have shown that the inability to break down certain foods may affect neurological processes in some children, causing autistic behavior. Medical professionals in England and Norway have performed tests on children with Autism. They discovered that half of the children do not break down gluten/casein proteins completely into amino acids.
In most of us, undigested proteins or peptides are eliminated harmlessly in the urine. However, in some autistic children, a few peptides enter into the bloodstream. Unbroken peptides entering into the bloodstream may cause abnormal brain development and create an opiate-like affect. The opiates depress the activity of the nervous system.
"If you aren't digesting these certain foods, the way that you are supposed to, then you are getting undigested food deep in the intestine where it is not supposed to be. And it can serve as a food source for different microbial or parasitic or fungi-type bugs, and that's where you get a lot of the gut problems with the kids. So diet is very, very important."
Specialists who treat autistic kids say diet does help kids in varying degrees, but ultimately children with the disorder need traditional educational training. Jennifer Muller is the Executive Director of the Autism Society of Alabama.
"It seems like there's an underlying group of kids that has some kind of medical with their gastro-intestinal system or some other system, and those children when the dairy and wheat are removed from their diet, that's the gluten-free, caisein-free diet that people will talk about, one of the first-tier biomedical interventions, sometimes those children will be able to pay attention better, not have as many behavioral episodes, that kind of thing so that that may help them when they are doing a traditional treatment. But that's not the majority of kids."
Dr. Matthew Remick is the Executive Director of Mitchell's Place, a comprehensive autism treatment center located near Liberty Park in Birmingham.
"The one thing I think about when families come in and say, "Should we try this, if it's something that I think is not going to be harmful for the child, and I don't think these biomedical approaches nor the diets will be harmful for the child, I will say, "Yes, I would try it." Maybe your child will be one of the responders."
Remick says doctors recommend parents strictly follow the diet for 4-6 weeks. If no improvement is noticed, the child is unlikely to respond to the biomedical approach. Tracey Martin expects she'll eventually wean her children off the restrictive diet. Next month, she will try to detoxify her children of the excess metals in their bodies when they are chelated. Chelation is a process in which an I.V. draws out excessive metals in the body. For now though, the diet makes a lot of good sense to her.
-- Donna Francavilla, April 11, 2006
Editor's note: This is the latest story in a year-long commitment to covering mental health issues in Alabama. You can learn more about our "Making Sense of Mental Health" project and find local mental health resources -- as our commitment continues throughout the year -- inside this website.