From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Like all mothers, Jacqueline Laurita prided herself on her son's achievements-big or small. At just 1 year old, her youngest child, Nicholas, now 3, "used a spoon so well, he would feed himself soup," she says. As soon as he began to speak, "he would say, 'I love you, Mommy,' and sing all the time," she says. But at 15 months the Real Housewives of New Jersey star started noticing a regression in his speech and motor skills. By 18 months, the issues had become more alarming. "He wasn't answering to his name or noticing people come into the room. He couldn't follow a simple command." Then the unimaginable happened. "He wouldn't say, 'I love you,'" she says, choking back a sob. "We had no idea what was going on."

When a family friend suggested that Nicholas could have autism, Jacqueline, 42, a stay-at-home mom of three including Nicholas's older brother C.J., 10 (daughter Ashlee, 21, from a previous relationship, lives in L.A.), and her husband, Chris, 46, a businessman, went online to autism speaks.org. "There was a checklist of warning signs, and I saw just about everything he was doing on that list," says Jacqueline. The realization was devastating. "You never want to think that your child isn't perfectly healthy," adds Chris. "We didn't want to believe it was true."

Jacqueline, who suffered five miscarriages before finally carrying Nicholas to term, quickly learned that her lavish lifestyle couldn't protect her from some very terrifying realities. "Everything is so expensive and time-consuming. We're lucky we can devote ourselves to this," she says. "I don't know how most people do it." Waiting for eight months to be cleared by insurance to see a specialist and then a local doctor for the official diagnosis was especially painful. "They say early intervention is key. It was a race to get him help," she says, sitting in her living room at home in Franklin Lakes, N.J. Adds Chris: "Every day we had to wait for treatment felt like a day we were wasting."

A scary, little-understood condition that affects 1.5 million children and four times more boys than girls, autism usually presents itself at around 18 months with a range of symptoms, from minor to debilitating. "Some individuals with autism don't ever have any language and show very low cognitive abilities," says Dr. Alycia Halladay, director of environmental research for Autism Speaks. "But children can show remarkable improvements in the short term and the long term with early intervention and therapy. The course of the disorder is not fixed."

Nor are the treatment plans (see box). While Jacqueline and Chris say they don't subscribe to many of the theories about the cause of autism (including the once widely held belief that vaccines cause the condition; the cause of autism is unknown, although risk factors may include prenatal issues, premature birth or increased paternal age), they were open to putting Nicholas on a gluten- and dairy-free diet based on the recommendations of other parents. "As a parent you want to try every avenue you can find," Jacqueline says of trying the dietary changes, which, although not scientifically proven to treat symptoms, "helped a lot" with his focus and concentration, she says.

When they introduced Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy in July, they began seeing improvements but also behavioral issues. "He was frustrated and hitting people," Jacqueline says. "It's so hard. He can't communicate what he wants, but you can't let him think that aggressive behavior is going to get him a reward."

All the while, they were trying to keep their ordeal off their TV show. "Everyone knew, but we weren't ready to put it out there until we had a treatment plan in place," Jacqueline says of their decision to keep the condition private while shooting season 4 last year. As she looked on in a daze as her costars squabbled, "it all seemed so petty," she says. "My head was here. I couldn't take it anymore." Still under contract, and in the middle of the season, Jacqueline remained on the show. According to the Lauritas and Bravo, no decision has been made about appearing on a fifth season of the franchise, but Jacqueline says she would document her son's condition if they do sign on. "If I could help one person by showing this, it would be worth it," she says.

Off-camera the couple experienced increased frustration watching other kids develop as Nicholas struggled. While his younger cousin told jokes at parties, Nicholas didn't respond to anyone. "You want them to play. You want them to be on the same level," Chris says. "It's tough to see that."

While they try to focus on getting help for their son, Jacqueline and Chris have confronted concerns about his future. "You want him to get adjusted and go to a mainstream school, but I worry about how the other kids will treat him," says Chris. "It breaks my heart knowing what he may go through." Echoes Jacqueline: "I worry about him being independent when he's older. I spend all my time researching what we can do for him."

These days the Lauritas have reason to be optimistic. Though Nicholas can't follow most commands, his routine is slowly getting easier. "He knows in the morning he has to brush his teeth," Jacqueline says. After his daily therapy session, he plays with blocks, hangs around with his big brother ("C.J. has been an angel with him," Chris says) and stays glued to his mom's side while she cooks dinner. "I know they say a lot of autistic kids are not affectionate, and I don't know how God allowed it, but he's always hugging and kissing me," Jacqueline says, smiling as she blots her tears. "I'm so glad about that. It would have been tragic to lose that."

Other improvements have been just as revelatory. "He's been surprising us with little words here and there," Jacqueline says. "Everything he says is a celebration." Especially the occasional moment of comic relief. "The other day, he said, 'Monkey. Ooh-ooh-aah-aah,'" she says with a laugh, looking down at Nicholas. "He's 3. Most kids might do that at 1, but we were so happy."