From Autism to Eagle Scout: Nourishing Hope Success Story


terri_logo-copy-1024x897Written by Terri Burges Hirning

(Originally published in 2011)

Whenever I tell people that my son (8 years old) is recovered from Autism they… 1) are shocked that he had a diagnosis of Autism at one time and, 2) they didn’t think Autism was something that you could “recover from.”

As we started down the path of understanding the biochemistry involved in my son’s diagnosis and all that it entailed, we would get a crash course in just how important diet is for the brain in addition to the obvious, the gut.

I began to hear the phrase “the gut is the 2nd brain” and as we made changes to my son’s diet I began to see that with chilling clarity. We started by removing dairy when he was 2 1/2 at the advice of my friend/occupational therapist. My son was truly addicted to dairy, he wanted milk more than he wanted food! I learned that often what we are intolerant to we crave. That was true with my son. I started tracking his behaviors with the foods he was eating. All of the additives in our foods, that in many cases were forms of MSG even though they don’t have the label of MSG, were wreaking havoc on his developing brain and therefore his behavior, sleep, interactions with others, etc. I began cutting out the over 200 forms of MSG, trans fats, dyes and dairy. He went through detox, which was pretty intense. But, the end result was a child who was sleeping better and not having as many tantrums. By his 3rd birthday I had removed gluten. After some extensive testing we found widespread inflammation in his little body just prior to his 4th birthday. We also targeted IgG food allergies, which were contributing to that inflammation. We also found that he had very high oxalates. While gluten free and casein free (GFCF) cooking was a way of life by now, throwing in another variable like oxalates was challenging. That is where I met Julie Matthews, through a private consult. I would later hear her at many DAN! conferences where I kept trying to learn all I could to help heal my son.

At first this journey was just about my son. But each conference I would go to and hear Drs. and researchers and nutritionists all talk about the role of diet in disease. When I heard about the stimulation of the immune system in many of us within 20 minutes of ingesting gluten, I knew I had to implement this for our whole family. I began connecting the dots with the complaints many of our family members would make about their arthritis, chronic fatigue, inability to lose weight, etc. They were all facing auto-immune issues without even knowing it! And if we didn’t change something up, that’s where we would be someday too! We had already seen so much improvement in our son with the removal of foods that he was intolerant to. When he had infractions his behavior swung wildly, aggression, tantrums, screaming was what we ended up with. Who says food doesn’t impact the brain? But I didn’t know what to expect for the rest of my family. My daughter was just a few years old when we removed gluten from the rest of our diets. She had eczema on her feet, which was brushed off with “put on cortisone cream” by our then-pediatrician. Once we removed gluten the eczema completely resolved! What we eat impacts more than just our digestive system.

But this knowledge was so empowering! I started researching just what many of these ingredients are that we commonly eat in everyday items. We would eventually eliminate almost everything that came in a box or can. Most of our meals are homemade and yes it can be time consuming but I have said from the beginning that I would rather spend that time cooking rather than dealing with my son’s meltdowns due to these harmful ingredients. I began to understand that many of the oils used in packaged foods (even the gluten free ones) are really not healthy at all! We replaced most oils with coconut oil, which has largely been villanized for years. The result? Increase in mitochondrial function for my son and I. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cells and many times that functioning is impaired in children with Autism. Since mitochondria come from moms, many moms of children with Autism also suffer from mitochondrial dysfunction – quite commonly in the form of chronic fatigue. I also started losing weight very easily! My husband’s previously (very) high cholesterol has normalized after years of pharmaceutical use with no such change. He is now off ALL medications and healthier than ever before!! We switched to organic grass fed beef and organic chicken. We try and eat organic whenever possible. We buy through co-ops and when things are on sale and stock our freezer.

When we look at how we – as humans – used to eat it is really sad to see how far away from that we are right now. But, by making these changes I can feel good about my family’s future!! My 13 year old step daughter will often come to us for her visits with stomach complaints and digestive issues. After just a few days of eating our way those issues will resolve.

Diet is powerful. I believe this is the foundation for health or illness, and that depends on what you choose to put into your body 3 times a day (at least). I am sure that to many we are “extreme” when it comes to food. But, to have my son tell me he loves me, play with his sisters, and just be a “typical” 8 year old tells me that all of this is worth it. The changes that can come are profound and to see diet’s impact on the brain andĀ development is amazing.

2021 Eagle Scout Update:

Matthew is now 18 years old and a senior in high school!

When I look back at our Getting Your Hopes Up story from 10 years ago – where he had already made tremendous progress – I can honestly say the benefits and improvements have only continued.

Last year, amidst a pandemic, he earned his Eagle Scout award which is no small feat but an especially high accomplishment given all that he has overcome. In fact, we just had his Eagle Scout Court of Honor. We were thrilled to have Julie in attendance because as much as it was a celebration of and for Matthew, it also was also a chance for my husband and I to reflect on all of the professionals who helped us and him along the way with deep gratitude. When we were just starting out, trying to figure out ways to support him we very often felt lost and confused. Thankfully we found amazing therapists, physicians, and practitioners such as Julie to help us navigate on this journey.

During his Court of Honor, Matthew gave several speeches (that of course made me cry), handed out mentor pins, greeted all of his guests, had a lot of sensory input – any one of these things would have caused a meltdown in the past. I am pretty sure I was the only one having a meltdown that day. šŸ˜‰

Now, heading into adulthood, he is a happy, healthy, loving young man. He has blossomed and I still credit the right nutritional intervention as one of the foundational therapies in the improvement of his health, wellness, and losing his autism diagnosis. He is now his own biggest advocate and has clearly connected how he feels physically and mentally with the foods he eats. What an empowering process. We are so glad we worked with Julie and embarked on this truly life-changing process, not just for our son but for our whole family!

Julie Matthews is a Certified Nutrition Consultant who received her masterā€™s degree in medical nutrition with distinction from Arizona State University. She is also a published nutrition researcher and has specialized in complex neurological conditions, particularly autism spectrum disorders and ADHD for over 20 years. Julie is the award winning author of Nourishing Hope for Autism, co-author of a study proving the efficacy of nutrition and dietary intervention for autism published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nutrients, and also the founder of Download her free guide, 12 Nutrition Steps to Better Health, Learning, and Behavior.


  1. Julie,
    Is it possible to speak to you by phone? I am a single parent of a 11 yr old autistic son, who is much like the boy Matthew in the story, and I’d like to find out how to implement the gluten free, casein free diet.

    Donald R

  2. My daughter eats everything, is not picky eater at all. She is over 40 and eats a healthy diet with a salad almost every day for lunch and dinner.
    She lives in a group home and as much as I can control it there is no sugar, no dessert, except a fruit, no frying, no canned food . Friends of Autistic People or FAP, of which I am the founder (1997), introduced the healthy way of eating to the care provider over 15 years ago. Nantucket,

    • Brita, that is wonderful to hear that your daughter is getting such a great diet at this group home. That is great. I hope others follow suit. It’s needed and I believe would help so much.

  3. Wow. Just wow. This is SO encouraging for me to read! My son has not been officially diagnosed with autism – or with anything, yet – but he suffers from severe muscle weakness, developmental delays, and he shows a lot of signs of the autism spectrum. I have already started modifying his diet and have seen vast improvement in the last four months, but I may need to step it up even further. Anyway, this is so inspiring for me to read. Thanks so much for sharing. I am beginning to feel empowered that I can change my son’s future. It’s really hard work, but reading stories like this definitely help to inspire me to go for it.

  4. I have learned so much from the example of Terri and Eric. I am proud to be family.

  5. Hi there

    This is a truly inspiring story and gives me the hope to carry on with the diet and program I have for me own son with Autism who is also 8. He is gluten and dairy free, low oxalates, low sugar, no soy, no preservatives etc etc etc as well and we have seen a huge difference over the years. But I am sure there are still stones left unturned with regard to his condition and I am convinced that he can recover eventually. I have used various naturopaths, having had little help offered from the doctors, so I was just wondering whether you used a medical doctor for any form of testing for him and if so what did you test for. I have had quite a lot of testing done by the naturopath, all very expensive and all gives the same results B deficient, yeast, low neurotransmitters etc and he is on the supplements to help with this. I found that the fish oils also made him stim and make noises so I took him off them even though I know he EFA is low. Do you give your son fish oils and if so what kind. The coconut oil thing sounds very interesting. We use nuttelex margarine spread and olive and sunflower oil. Are these really considered to cause issues. If so I will definitely try the coconut oil. I’ve tried it before but a little half-heartedly I think. Anyway any suggestions or tips would be great. Thanks very much. Kerry


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