I met with Jacqueline Laurita, of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," at her home to discuss her son Nich-olas' diagnosis of autism. Regardless of our views on reality television, Lau-rita deserves the utmost of respect for how she has used her celebrity status and the show as a platform to increase awareness about the disorder. What was most touching was when Laurita spoke about the "crash course" she was forced to take in order to understand autism and start treatment for her son ASAP. Time was not on her side. Like many of us, including myself, autism is something we only know a little bit about until it hits home.

Here is Dr. Nina's What You Need to Know crash course on autism:

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a brain disorder characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication as well as restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. It is as though the brain is using a different operating system. No two individuals with autism are alike. If you've met A child with autism, you've met A child with autism. Each and every one of them is so wonderfully different.

How common

is autism?

One in 88 American children fall within the autism spectrum. It is 4 to 5 times more common in boys than girls: 1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls are diagnosed with autism. We also are seeing an increase in rates over the last several years. Although improved diagnosis and environmental influences are suspected, we are not completely sure why this is happening.

What causes Autism?

We are learning more; but, we still do not have all of the answers. It appears that a combination of genetic and environmental factors influence early brain development. These include advanced parental age of either mom or dad, maternal illness during pregnancy, viral infections or exposure to environmental chemicals (e.g. heavy mercury).

How is autism

diagnosed?

Very early indicators that require evaluation by an expert include: No babbling or pointing by age 1; no single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age 2; no response to name; loss of language or social skills; poor eye contact; excessive lining up of toys or objects; or no smiling or social responsiveness. If you are concerned that your child's developmental course is atypical, talk to your child's pediatrician. There are a number of questionnaires that help screen for ASD and can indicate if a more comprehensive evaluation is warranted.

How is it treated?

Children do not "outgrow" autism, but studies show early diagnosis and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes. Treatment depends on the symptoms, but typically involves special behavioral training that teaches social skills and how to communicate and help themselves as they grow older. In some cases speech and physical therapy are helpful. The goal is to tailor teaching to the way they learn.

More good information and resources are available today to help us grow deeper in our understandings. Check out ninds.nih.gov and autism.com. Family and friend support also is needed. There are useful tools to help us as we support our families and friends: autismspeaks.org and autismsupportnetwork.com.

After my touching meeting with Jacqueline and Nicholas, I found a beautiful acronym for AUTISM that I got engraved for her family: Angels sent from God, Unveiling themselves to the world, To unite us all, Influencing hearts minds and souls, Spreading compassion love and understanding, Making a difference in this misguided world. Although an acronym for autism, these words are an inspiration by which most of can only aspire to live by.

Dr Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions on general medical topics to her at drninaradcliff@aol.com