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Whole-Body Strategies For Autism With Dr. Martha Herbert

“After much thought, I have come to the formulation that autism may be most comprehensively understood and helped through an inclusive whole-body systems approach, where genes and environment are understood to interplay.”—Dr. Martha Herbert

C.R. writes: Last summer we blogged about a true heroine, a mom named Kathleen who refused to accept the words of the experts who told her that her son most likely would never be free from his autism symptoms. Kathleen’s powerful discoveries, about the power of diet and environment, maybe aren’t new, but she took them to the nth degree with her determination, hard work and inspiration from her deeply held faith.

She used her home-spun wisdom (and serious smarts) to play “investigative autism researcher.” She tried minor and then major dietary and environmental changes in order to help her son. During her time with Therapy Soup, she introduced us to the research and practice of Dr. Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist and an expert in the treatment of autism.

Dr. Herbert views autism as a“dynamic encephalopathy” (something that can change) rather than a “static encephalopathy” (something that is fixed for life). She deeply explores how vulnerabilities to the environment affect brain and body health. She has a holistic, whole-body and brain function outlook and is one of those rare and wonderful doctors who respects the intuitive knowledge and practical experience of mothers and fathers.

In essence, she teams with her patients’ parents and makes them a real part of their child’s treatment team. She even drafts them into being part of a personalized research team.

In her new book, “The Autism Revolution”, she goes further than most autism specialists. Her impressive science background merges with common sense and even intuitive sense. Fortunately, she and her co-author, medical journalist Karen Weintraub, make complex scientific and medical materials seamlessly blend with a holistic viewpoint. Understanding how the body and brain work together, and how important this is, is made accessible to the average (but committed), reader.

The book makes the frontier of research and treatment real and practical. It teaches how a healthy gut is important to the functioning of the brain, how inflammation is associated with autism (and other disorders), how various stresses can affect the immune system and are correlated to autism, and other information you don’t get to hear a lot about, except in the occasional soundbite. Nutrition is front and center, which is rare in books about brain disorders.

The Autism Revolution is beautifully organized (and so well-written that the writing becomes “invisible,” which isn’t always the case with even popular medical books). It features the personal stories of Dr. Herbert’s patients and their mothers and fathers and takes the reader step by step through the diagnosis and treatment process.

Part One is called Take a Fresh Look at Autism. In it, Dr. Herbert explains why she is writing the book and how her understanding of autism has evolved over time. She devotes several pages to alleviating parental anxiety by giving an overview of steps that they can take to help their child (such as dietary measures), while emphasizing that they should “know what you can’t control and what you can.”

Part Two is divided into four chapters—Repair and Support Cells and Cycles; Get Gut and Immune Systems on Your Side; Help the Body Mend the Brain; and Calm Brain Chaos. It contains the only lesson in cell biology I ever understood on the first reading, and explains the dangers by which cells are threatened—especially two cell-supply problems she calls not enough and too much.

By giving the reader an understanding of autism on the microscopic level it becomes far simpler for the reader to understand some basic mechanisms of autism on the macro-level, which it seems to mirror. The child on the autism-spectrum (like the non-autistic child), lives in a world of environmental stimulus. Not enough of the right stimulation, whether it be proper nutrition, noise, activity and so on, or too much stimulation, can trigger blockages or shut down and end up with symptoms of overload—and what parents call meltdown. The book explains the biological, physiological, mental and emotional processes and even reveals a glimpse at the inner experiences of someone with autism.

The authors also give the reader a crash course in how the digestive system works and the importance of gut bacteria and proper digestion to the functioning of the brain. She says “The immune system and digestion play a huge role in autism,” and “An explosion of science supports the gut-immune-brain connection.”

Dr. Herbert’s one of the few MDs in the public eye today who really has an understanding of the benefits of a whole-foods diet and how gut-bugs affect brain functions and even mood, emotions, and behavior. She gives detailed cutting-edge advice on diet and nutrition which will challenge the advice of typical, micro-nutrionists. Unlike some MDs, she’s not afraid to explore “controversial” but very real issues like food allergies and intolerance, the connection between gluten and casein and immune-system response, diet, chemical exposure and inflammation, and the benefits of unprocessed foods, supplements and more.

Each treatment discussed in the book, whether dietary or other, is presented with both the pros and the cons so parents are able to make their own decisions about which way to go.

One of the things I was personally happy to see is a rational viewpoint in the vaccine debate. A few months ago I was sitting and talking with a couple of moms and one of them insisted that the “cause” of autism and the number of cases that are appearing are directly a result of vaccinations. I said that there may be a correlation, there may even be a causal relationship, but we do not have definitive evidence that vaccines contribute to autism.  A lot of other things have also changed since vaccines, which is why it is hard to isolate trends—people’s diets have dramatically altered, chemicals such as the ones in plastics, are everywhere, and so on.

What we do know for sure, as Dr. Herbert reminds us, is that vaccines do prevent serious diseases and are important. But Dr. Herbert greatly respects the experience of mothers and fathers and doesn’t dismiss their experiences—and yes, some do report that vaccines seem to trigger their child’s the onset of autism symptoms. Meanwhile, she takes a measured approach based on the facts at hand.

Part Three is called Transcend Autism: Share the Strengths and Lose the Pain. The first chapter is “Join Your Child’s World; then, From Autistic to Extraordinary; then Lead the Revolution!, and finally, Do It for Yourself, Your Next Baby, Your Family. Dr. Herbert says, “treatment successes are an untapped scientific goldmine” and encourages parents to chart their child’s progress and gives readers the tools to do so.

Along the way, she also reminds us to remember that there are emotional components to the experience of autism, and these can sometimes be forgotten, even in the midst of meltdowns. When a child’s world is spinning out of control, it can be difficult for parents to stay focused on the steps needed to move forward. The book gives clear and practical advice for observing and connecting with children and noting correlations between behavior and environmental influences. Lack of sleep, loud noises, too many things happening at once, eating cereal and so on.

I felt as if I’d been given super-powered eyes and ears, or at least a new way to observe behavior. After I read this book I joined an acquaintance with an autistic son at the playground. A lot was going on—teens and a couple of adults were playing basketball and racketball, a group of moms were pushing strollers, and toddlers and younger children were running around making a ton of fun-loving noise. A little-league practice was in session, a breeze was blowing and just outside the gates traffic was having a fit.

Adam was in his own world. Somehow, he was able to block out all the commotion and concentrate on (and isolate) a sound that must have been many blocks away. (In fact, I could barely hear it, and his mom couldn’t hear it at all).

His mother said, “He’s got a great imagination, huh?” I had just finished the book (and had even taken detailed notes since I do holistic nutrition consulting a couple evenings a week). I really tried hard to listen to what Adam was saying. He was nearly shrieking, his words running together in excitement and pointing in the general direction of the city street. I caught the words,”the white police truck” over and over again.

Then, I slowed down and listened and heard a far-away siren. When I asked him if he heard the police car’s siren, he looked straight at me, appeared to give an millisecond of a smile, and sat down, quiet for the next two or three minutes. He no longer had a need to point out this obvious source of intrigue any longer to us unobservant and boring adults. We had briefly connected with him and his world. (Of course, it was easy for me, I wasn’t exhausted, burned-out from sleepless nights taking care of Adam, who’s a dedicated night-owl).

The next day I bought a copy of “The Autism Revolution” for Adam’s mom, which she says is eye-opening. For parents who want to decipher what their autistic child’s emotional, intellectual, physical and even spiritual needs are, “The Autism Revolution” offers a crash course.

It is so important that Dr. Herbert validates the loving care, treatment and advocacy that parents of autistic children do on a daily basis—she calls it “grassroots science.” Also included in the book are sample forms to help parents track their own data, like their child’s behavior, environmental changes and influences, diet and treatment changes, as well a useful summary of the main points in the book, perfect for a quick reference.

Finally, there was a section titled, Ten Tips for Doctors, Therapists, and Scientists that should be required reading for every professional who is involved or might possibly be involved in autism treatment or research.

I highly recommend “The Autism Revolution” and give it 5 out of 5 cups of soup.


Dr. Martha Herbert is an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, a Pediatric Neurologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and an affiliate of the Harvard-MIT-MGH Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging.

She is director of the TRANSCEND Research Program (Treatment Research and Neuroscience Evaluation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Learn more about Dr. Herbert and her work, including her cutting-edge research at Transcend Research Lab.

Whole-Body Strategies For Autism With Dr. Martha Herbert

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2012). Whole-Body Strategies For Autism With Dr. Martha Herbert. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Sep 2012
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