When doctors told a Solihull couple their son would "always be different" they refused to give up hope.

Health Reporter Emma Brady hears how the Sherlock family helped their son combat autism...

Surrounded by friends and presents on his second birthday, Tom Sherlock should have been laughing, playing games and enjoying his party.

Instead he was preoccupied with the packaging and boxes his gifts came in, rather than having fun with his friends at his home in Olton, Solihull.

His mother, Jackie Sherlock, said: "I knew the day Tom turned two, something wasn't right. He didn't seem to understand the concept of a party, or understand it was for him.

"All the other children were of a similar age and had some communication, some more so than others, but they were all talking except Tom."

Just six months earlier, he could say simple words like cat, dog and bye, but that ability disappeared by the time of his second birthday, in October, 2002.

He became more withdrawn and his development stalled, so Mrs Sherlock sought advice from the family's GP and a series of tests revealed Tom had Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Autism, which takes many forms, such as Asperger's Syndrome, is a lifelong disability which affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with people.

Mrs Sherlock, aged 39, added: "When he was diagnosed with ASD, we were told 'Tom will always be different' and that just broke my heart.

"Tom was the result of a fourth attempt at IVF; he was such a wanted baby. When he was born, I counted ten fingers and toes, he just seemed perfect, so when he was diagnosed with ASD I took the news very badly."

In Britain, about one in 110 people are diagnosed each year with a form of autism, usually between the ages of two and six.

The couple were told how they could improve their son's ability to communicate by using a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) but would have to wait nine months to go on a course.

But two days after Tom's diagnosis, in July 2003, his father Andrew Sherlock heard about an alternative system.

He said: "My brother told me one of his neighbours was running something called Son-Rise, which had made a big difference to the child's communication skills.

"Usually the prognosis is 'there's no hope' and that's the frustrating thing about the healthcare system and how autism is treated in the UK. So we decided to look at Son-Rise as an option.

"We had no idea there may be a dietary link so when we were told to cut gluten and dairy products from his diet, we had no idea of the impact it would have.

"That appears to be a contributory factor in a lot of cases, but the NHS didn't tell us that. We were just shocked by the lack of information available to us."

The Son-Rise programme was devised in the United States by Barry and Samahria Kaufman, whose son Raun was diagnosed as severely autistic with an IQ of just 30.

They found that joining in whatever activity the child was doing could open doors to better understanding and that a gluten-free and dairy-free diet could improve his or her brain function.

However, this regime contradicts other methods recommended by health workers.

Mrs Sherlock contacted a family in Newcastle to find out whether it had worked for them.

She said: "When I spoke to this mother she said her son had flourished since they started Son-Rise.

"While we were talking I could hear him laughing in the background and just thought I wanted some of that for Tom.

"We began the scheme in February, 2004, and we now have a little boy who's extremely interactive, can talk in seven-word sentences, interacts with other children - he's a completely different child now.

"I don't know if Tom will ever be totally free of his autism but I do know that it's working for him.

"Autistic children don't understand why the world works, which is why they're often happiest doing their own thing."

She added: "All we've ever wanted is for Tom to talk so he could say things like 'I love you Mummy'.

"I used to dream about that after it he was diagnosed, and Son-Rise has helped make that a reality."