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"Autism is Not a Shameful Secret"

Lee Clower

This post is part of our 1 in 50 project, in which we attempt to put a face on the latest autism statistics. Discover more real-life stories at parenting.com/autism.

For those of you who don't know me, I'm one of the original cast members of Bravo's hit reality television series The Real Housewives of New Jersey. I signed on to this show back in 2008 without taking into consideration how much my life could change. I never stopped to think that there would be a greater purpose to it. You see, my 3-year-old son, Nicholas, has autism. We kept it under wraps until we could figure out what was wrong, and what we were going to do about it, but that time has come.

Honestly, I'm glad it's out there. I don't think people should be afraid or ashamed to share their struggles. When you open up, you often find that it's the support and generosity of others that can provide the strength and tools you need to get through it. Ever since my husband, Chris, and I went public about our son's diagnosis in People magazine, the support has been overwhelming. Thousands of you have reached out to us with knowledge, resources, and success stories. Our family faces many challenges, just like any other family. Right now, one of our greatest happens to be helping Nicholas recover from autism—because I believe it's possible. Maybe not all children will recover, but many have, and all of us parents with a child on the spectrum should be given that hope.

Plus: Autism Warning Signs

How It All Started

It was such a gradual regression with our son. Nicholas has a cousin, Joey, who is two weeks younger. It was hard not to notice that Nicholas was not meeting the developmental milestones at the same rate as his cousin. Joey walked and talked earlier than Nicholas, and seemed more in tune with his environment and the people in it. Meanwhile, Nicholas enjoyed playing by himself, and seemed content in his own little world. However, Nicholas was doing some things that Joey could not. He knew his letters and their sounds. He could count up to 20, and identify his shapes and colors. He was a whiz on the iPad.

Signs of regression became too clear to ignore when he was around 2 years old, shortly after we started filming season four of RHONJ. He stopped singing his favorite songs, using utensils, and following my finger as I pointed to an object. Eye contact and language slowly diminished. He wouldn't answer to his name. When Nicholas stopped saying “I love you,” it was devastating. As a mom, when your child starts to talk, hearing those three little words is something you cherish. Losing that broke my heart.

Plus: Early Signs of Autism in Infants

There was a three-month waiting period to see the developmental pediatrician. We arrived at her office already assuming that our child had autism. But after watching the doctor play with Nicholas for over an hour, there was a part of me hoping to hear I was wrong.

Nothing prepared us for the pain of hearing a professional say “Your child has autism.” Seeing the diagnosis written down on a piece of paper in front of our faces hit us hard. I got a lump in my throat, and found it hard to swallow. I could see the pain on my husband's face. The pediatrician gave us information on treatment options, and recreational activities for kids on the spectrum.

I went home, hugged my husband, and cried until I couldn't cry anymore. I cried for myself; I cried for my husband; I cried for my other kids, and I cried for my Nicholas. After that one-day grieving period, I woke up the next morning focused on bringing out the best Nicholas that he could be. I began reading everything I could find on autism. We learned that early intervention is key to recovery. We learned that diet and nutrition play an important role. We learned that my husband and I would have to work together to be our son's greatest advocates.

Plus: Everyhing You Need to Know About Autism Spectrum Disorders

Going Public

Some of you may wonder why we would be so open about our son's disorder, maybe thinking that we should have kept it hidden—but we feel strongly that autism is not a shameful secret. Nicholas is our son, and we are proud of him. We are not ashamed of him or the diagnosis. We don't ever want him to feel ashamed, either. My son is a beautiful little boy who is very smart and loving. Autism is one small piece of who he is.

I often wonder what led me to this life as a reality TV personality in a seemingly meaningless, drama-filled series. I didn't know it would be a platform to help others. Whether you have a child with autism, some other disability, or none at all, we all need support. I hope you will follow us on our journey in this new Parenting column, and I hope you'll let me follow yours.

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