The Bravo star's 7-year-old son was diagnosed in 2012


Four years have passed since Jacqueline Laurita‘s son Nicholas was diagnosed with autism, and the Bravo star says she’s still learning new things about the condition every day.

When it comes to helping her 7-year-old, “there’s still a lot that needs to be done,” the Real Housewives of New Jersey star says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “But he’s making progress. He’s brought so much joy to our family.”

Jacqueline Laurita

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Laurita, 46, who shares Nicholas, as well son CJ, 14, with husband Chris Laurita, 46, says their youngest has taught the family so much.

“He’s brought us really close together in a lot of ways, too,” she says. “It’s an interesting journey, and I love the journey that we’re on. I’ve met so many great people through it. I’ve just learned a lot.”

Now the O.G. Housewife is returning to the hit reality show after taking a break to focus on her family and Nicholas’ diagnosis — and she hopes Bravo stardom will help families in similar situations cope and “not feel so alone.”

Meanwhile, the reality star has another exciting development to share with fans: Her daughter Ashlee Holmes, from a previous marriage, is engaged and expecting a baby boy this fall.

“She’s come such a long way,” says Laurita of her daughter, once a perennial troublemaker. “Our relationship has come a long way, it’s evolved and we’re all in such a better place than we used to be. It’s just been such a beautiful thing to see.”

Holmes, 25, who is engaged to her longtime friend Pete Malleo, is planning on tying the knot after welcoming the baby so she can have their son in their wedding.

“She’s had her wedding planned out for years on Pinterest, but right now she just wants to focus on having the baby,” says Laurita. “She didn’t want to rush or change the wedding date.”

And as for Malleo, Laurita says he feels like part of the family already.

“He fits right in … we love him,” Laurita says. “It’s funny because I knew him as her friend for so long and I would always say: ‘Well, why aren’t you guys dating?’ And then finally they just started dating, and right away, it blossomed really fast.”

“When you marry your best friend, it’s just like the best of both worlds,” adds the proud mother.

The Real Housewives of New Jersey season 7 premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on Bravo.

For more about Jacqueline Laurita’s return to RHONJ, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Aurelie Corinthios