Jacqueline Laurita Opens Up About Her Son’s Autism and the Positive Effects of his Gluten-Free Diet
Jacqueline Laurita, mother of a son with autism spectrum disorder, wants people to know that there is hope for children with autism. An original cast member of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New Jersey, she is no stranger to watching her family’s life play out in the spotlight. But Laurita is now discussing a more personal cause that hits close to home. The mother of three is now using her celebrity status to educate people about how to care for children with autism and to let other parents know that they are not alone.
When Nicholas was born, everything seemed fine. At approximately 18 months old, however, Nicholas started to regress. He stopped responding to his name, making eye contact and following simple commands. He would giggle, seemingly at nothing, right after eating; had constipation and diarrhea; and had stopped using utensils. Laurita says the differences between Nicholas, and his cousin, who is only two weeks apart in age, were highly noticeable. She decided to bring him to the pediatrician for autism testing.
“I thought of it more like how it was portrayed in the movie Rain Man,” she says about the affliction. “I knew it was a social and communication disorder, but I didn’t realize the spectrum was so wide.”
Laurita and her husband, Chris, consulted doctors about what to do and received a host of treatment options. Although the diagnosis was frightening at first, Laurita says she found helpful resources online and gained comfort from other people’s stories. Through the Autism Speaks website and Generation Rescue, an autism-related nonprofit organization, she first read that some people were getting results by using a gluten-free diet to treat the symptoms of autism.
“My son reacted to certain foods in a negative way, so we did food-allergy testing,” she says. “Our first goal was to get him the healthiest he could be from the inside out so that he could respond to his therapies with focus and concentration.”
Through this period of testing, they discovered that Nicholas, now five years old, did not have Celiac disease, but they nevertheless decided to put their son on a gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) diet. The effects were immediate, she says. For example, his overall concentration and focus improved; he was doing less self-stimulation, or “stimming;” his bowel movements were more regular and of a better consistency; his sleep improved; he was more engaged with his surroundings; and he responded well to his treatments and therapies.
Even though the improvement was dramatic, Laurita says, she and her husband didn’t completely commit to Nicholas’ GFCF diet. The other family members were still eating gluten, and she would give her son some bread on the weekends as a treat.
“I was doing it wrong in the beginning,” Laurita admits. “He was mostly gluten free. I didn’t understand it had to be 100 percent or nothing and that even a crumb could set him back three months.”
Another hurdle was identifying exactly which foods contain gluten. Laurita says that she was feeding Nicholas chicken with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, not realizing it contains gluten. “He was acting like he was eating gluten, and I couldn’t figure out why,” she says.
Getting into the rhythm of the diet, especially with a picky eater, was a challenge. So Laurita made a list of allowed and banned ingredients.
“I keep them in a binder in the house so everyone can be aware,” she says, explaining how she went through her pantry and meticulously read all of the food labels to create this list. “I removed the items that he could not have. I made a list of the meals he liked and replaced them with GFCF versions. It took quite a few tries to find the things that he liked and would eat. You have to watch out for hidden ingredients and cross-contamination, too.”
The Lauritas tried the diet as a family, but they had trouble sticking to it. So they now keep a separate food closet upstairs for their older son, CJ, so he can still enjoy his favorite foods and snacks.
“Whatever we eat as a family, we make a GFCF version for Nicholas so he doesn’t feel different,” she says, explaining that birthdays and celebrations take a lot of prep work. “I find it easier at times to cook in bulk and freeze things for future use.”
Laurita has many options in her area of New Jersey for buying GFCF food items. Most of her local grocery stores have gluten-free sections, and she purchases food online. Although the family has generally settled into a meal routine that works, surprises occur, and keeping tabs on an active young boy can be difficult. Over the holiday season, Nicholas got his hands on some food containing gluten.
“We saw a change in his behavior almost immediately,” Laurita says. “He started giggling at nothing and became hyperactive. He then started stimming. We then saw an increase in tantrums. We went right back on the diet, and his behavior improved.
“This slipup was a reminder of how much Nick’s diet makes a big difference in his behaviors. We now stick to it 100 percent.”
Now that Nicholas is in school, his diet and food items have become central parts of Laurita’s daily routine. She packs his lunch every day and has made sure that school personnel are aware of his dietary needs.
“[They] work with me to keep him on track,” she says. “If they are making a specific snack in his cooking class, I bring in his GFCF ingredients so that he can enjoy the same things as his classmates. When there are birthday parties, he brings in his own GFCF cupcakes.”
The same goes for eating at restaurants and during vacations. It takes a little extra work to plan meals and stock a fridge on vacation, but it is well worth it, Laurita says.
Although the family has seen a noticeable improvement since Nicholas has gone on the GFCF diet, they have also tried many other treatments. He currently goes to preschool for six hours a day, five days a week, where he has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). In school, he receives applied behavioral-analysis therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech and language therapy, and music therapy. He then returns home, where he receives two to three hours of home therapy, which includes use of the hyperbaric-therapy chamber the parents have installed in the house.
“The first time [Nicholas] used it, … we were playing video games with my other son, and Nick was sitting on the couch,” she says. “He normally didn’t engage or pay attention to what we were doing. But it looked as though he followed us as we were playing this game. I said, ‘You little monkey,’ and he said, ‘Monkey!’”
This small moment was a major step in her son’s behavior, Laurita says. They now use the chamber for one hour a day.
Although many of Laurita’s daily routines and struggles with a child with autism are typical of those of other parents, she holds the unique position of also being on a reality-TV show. She has chosen to use this public platform to discuss her son’s autism and bring awareness to the cause. Laurita has been on the Real Housewives since before Nicholas was born. When he first started showing signs of regression, the couple decided not to discuss it during the filming of the show.
“We did not have an official diagnosis or a treatment plan in place yet, and we did not want the viewers to speculate on what our child’s issues were until we knew for a fact ourselves,” she says. “Once we got his diagnosis, we decided that it was important to use our platform to raise autism awareness and share our journey with others … not only so we can get support and resources from others to help our own child and family, but also so we could pass on what we learn to help as many others as we can. It has become our mission, and we are very dedicated.”
Laurita says that the public response has been largely positive and supportive. Social-media channels have enabled her to connect with people all over the world who are going through the same struggles.
“There are a few people who feel we are exploiting our child. We disagree. An autism diagnosis isn’t a dirty little secret. Autism is a part of our lives, and we will not be ashamed of it,” she says. “We don’t want our son to ever be ashamed of it, either. Some may call it ‘exploiting,’ but we prefer to call it ‘raising awareness.’ We are very proud parents.”
Jacqueline’s PantryJacqueline Laurita has tried a lot of gluten-free products; these brands are at the top of her list.
- Ancient Harvest
- Andean Dream
- Applegate Naturals
- Bob’s Red Mill
- Ener-G Foods
- Enjoy Life
- King Arthur
- So Delicious
- YumEarth Organics