It's been eight years since we first became acquainted with Jacqueline Laurita. A veteran on the Bravo hit reality series The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Jacqueline has never held back when it comes to living unashamed in her truth and the love she has for her family. In 2012, Jacqueline and her husband Chris Laurita (brother to former RHONJ costars Caroline and Dina Manzo) learned their son Nicholas has autism, a diagnosis that would change this family's life forever. But rather than shy away from the cameras, Jacqueline and Chris made the decision to document their family's journey as they embarked on a new reality.
CafeMom recently caught up with the Lauritas to discuss the progress they've seen in Nicholas, now 7; how this journey has forever changed their family (the couple also has a 14-year-old son named CJ, and Jacqueline has a 26-year-old daughter named Ashley from a previous marriage); the setbacks they've endured; and the hope they wish to inspire in other families with children on the autism spectrum.
How's Nicholas doing these days?
Jacqueline: Nick has come a long way. He went from being completely non-verbal and very disengaged to pretty much saying anything -- and reading way above his level. Over the last couple of years, he's learned to understand "yes" and "no" and uses them appropriately. He's also asking "why" and "where" questions and putting more and more sentences together. Before it was just "me" and "I want."
It's been amazing, I've been waiting for this. He's definitely way more engaged with his family and is very loving. He loves giving hugs and kisses.
More from CafeMom: 15 Moms Share Their 1 Wish for Their Child With Autism
How has this journey changed your family?
Jacqueline: I think we [Chris and I] both learned so much from this experience. I think we definitely learned a lot of patience. As a family, we've learned to work more together. We share in responsibilities and take the load off each other. We know how to step in and take over when we need to, and give each other breaks and "me" time. It really works well.
Chris: I think overall, Nicholas has taught us all to be very patient. We also appreciate all of Nicholas's accomplishments. I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was telling me how his son never stops talking -- saying, "Oh, he's always interrupting." I said, "You know, what you're complaining about is what I hope for." This journey has really taught us to acknowledge and realize what the important things [in life] are.
CJ [Jacqueline and Chris's teenage son] has become an amazing person, and I think Nicholas has had a lot to do with it. He's so patient, caring, and loving. I'm really looking forward to watching CJ grow and become a caring person who leads with compassion.
More from CafeMom: 10 Moms Share What They Want You to Know About Autism
How has being on The Real Housewives of New Jersey and having Nicholas in front of cameras changed your life?
Chris: That was actually a tough decision: Whether or not to expose our family to the cameras. At the time, there really wasn't a whole lot of films or anyone -- there were a few people, but not a lot stepping up -- really bringing autism to the surface and raising awareness. There are a lot of people who have the platform and don't say or do anything. We made the decision to bring it out -- and bring it out on a platform that can be pretty toxic at times.
Jacqueline: I was always open to having it in public, because I never want Nicholas to be ashamed of his diagnosis, but bringing it out on a show like the Housewives made me question how [producers] would handle the situation.
More from CafeMom: Autism From A to Z: Everything a Mom Needs to Know
Chris: We basically told Bravo, listen, we're gonna bring our child on the show and help raise awareness. And basically, if you don't do the right thing, we're going to come to your offices and kill all of you. [Laughs] Kidding. This is a very sensitive situation. We wanted to make sure this gets out the right way, and don't you dare turn this into something negative.
We're happy with the outcome and filmed a whole lot more with Nicholas than people got to see. But I think [what aired] was enough to help raise awareness and make some noise. I can't even tell you how many times people have told me, "Because of you, I got my child tested." It's so satisfying to hear that what we did [and what we're doing] is helping other people.
What are some of the common misconceptions you think people have about autism -- or that you think people just get wrong?
Jacqueline: No child with autism is the same. You can't use a cookie-cutter approach. Children with autism are extremely intelligent and are very smart -- very loving. They might not be able to express their feelings all the time, but are in fact feeling those feelings.
My son Nicholas is extremely bright. He has a photographic memory that inspires me to find ways to use this gift to help teach him things. Because he has a photographic memory, I would take pictures of things in his environment and put words on them. He ended up learning the words and not just memorizing the pictures.
Chris: A lot of people hear or see someone has an autistic child and think there's a disability. A lot of people like to put that label on autistic kids. We know our child has autism, but we also know he has potential -- and we'll help bring it out. We don't just accept the way things are, because if we did, there would be no improvement. Through hard work and dedication, you can get results.
More from CafeMom: Lessons of Love That Kids With Autism Can Teach Us All
How has being the parents of an autistic child changed you as a couple?
Jacqueline: I came to terms with Nicholas's autism before Chris [and] that made things a little hard in the beginning. When we both got on the same page about things, everything was a successful -- because we had the same mission and worked together. We take steps together and give each other breaks. We try to find the humor in things and look at the beauty of life.
Chris: I tell people all the time, when Jacqueline and I got married and made our vows to one another, I never said, "In good times, and if anything goes wrong, I'm running for the hills."
There are times when I'll walk into the house and see Jacqueline is having a rough time and I'll say, "Hey, look, I'm going to take him in the car for a drive." I'll take him out of the house for an hour or half-hour driving -- which is something he loves to do -- just so I know the heat is off her so I can do what I can to help. And it works the other way, too. Sometimes I'll say, "Jac, I need a break" and will go for a drive or go downstairs and ...
Jacqueline: Watch Netflix. [laughs]
Chris: And go downstairs and power-watch freaking ... whatever. We understand that we're gonna do this together and help each other.
What advice do you have for families with a child on the spectrum?
Jacqueline: Reach out and speak to other families. Don't isolate yourself. Not only are we able to get help through other people, but also help others in return -- [and] that's what it's all about. This is how the [autism] community is. I just love how much everyone helps one another. I keep in touch with thousands of families that I email or meet at different events. We teach and lift up each other.
I have to say for the parents [who are raising a child on the spectrum], this might not be the journey that you expected to have with your child. It's a different journey, but is still a wonderful journey. You have just as many joys. Nicholas brings us so much joy -- we're constantly giggling at the things he says. We're still enjoying our child.
Chris: When Jacqueline and I first found out [Nicholas] might have autism, I did some research and the first thing that popped up was Generation Rescue's website. I started to read about the symptoms and other children and other families and thought the organization could be a good resource for us. And literally within a day of emailing them, we got a response from the director of Generation Rescue -- and within a week or two, we met with her and Jenny McCarthy. They continued to stay with us, and recommended doctors and resources to us.
We're so grateful, which is why The Little Kernel [a snack brand Chris co-developed -- inspired by Nicholas -- that addresses common dietary needs associated with autism] gives back a portion of all proceeds [to the organization].
If you had to look back at Jacqueline and Chris at the beginning of this journey, what advice would you give your former selves?
Jacqueline: I would say to believe that autism is treatable. It is, and does get better. Your child does have the ability to learn. Never give up. If you keep persevering, and you keep teaching your child what you want them to learn, eventually, they're going to learn it. Whatever your starting point is, you're not going to stay there -- you're going to make progress. You just have to keep working towards that every day. Take it one day at a time. Try new things.
More from CafeMom: 'My Son Beat Autism': One Mom's Amazing Story
Chris: Also, don't waste any time; get to work right away. There are a lot of things out there that work for some children and not for others. Find your child's comfort zone and get to work. Don't waste any time, like I did, in denial thinking he would be fine and is just slower. The sooner you get to work and the earlier intervention, the better.
What advice do you have for parents who don't have a child on the autism spectrum?
Jacqueline: Jump in and help! There are various fundraisers happening in the [autism] community that you can participate in. I feel like everyone knows someone who has a child on the spectrum. Parents [with a child on the spectrum] need your support and your understanding -- not the funny looks if their child is acting up in public. Have some compassion and see if they need any help. Maybe your friend needs a babysitter for a couple hours, or you can run an errand if it's hard for your friend to get out, because their child is in a mood.
More from CafeMom: 11 Autistic Kids Explain 'What Autism Really Means'
Chris: I think the most important thing I can say is to educate yourself. There are a lot of people out there who don't have to deal with children with autism -- or children in general -- or anyone with any kind of an issue. But I think if you educate yourself, and learn about autism, I think you'll understand when you're out in public and see a child having a meltdown or acting up you'll be more compassionate -- or lend a helping hand. There's nothing wrong with going up to a complete stranger and asking if they're okay. I think that makes you a better person.
With autism growing the way it is [autism now affects 1 in 68 children -- with 1 in 42 boys being affected], I think it's important for everyone to educate themselves, because you're going to come across it at some point in your life.