In a personal essay published in People, Rosie O'Donnell is opening up about parenting a child with autism.
O'Donnell's 9-year-old daughter, Dakota, was diagnosed with with autism in 2016 when she was 2 years old. “I worried about my longevity, because as you speak to parents of kids with autism, their main worry is what happens when they die," O'Donnell, 60, told People. "Who’s going to love their child and understand them the way you do?”
In an emotional essay written for the magazine, O'Donnell detailed what followed, writing that when her then 2-year-old daughter didn't respond to her name during a routine doctor's exam "somewhere deep down I knew."
"Getting the diagnosis felt like I was punched in the stomach," the movie star wrote. "I had to give myself a moment to go, 'Okay, we're going to figure out how to get through it.'"
The "League of Their Own" actor went on to write that while anyone can "read as much as possible" about autism, when you "meet one person with autism, you've met one person with autism," emphasizing that autism is a spectrum.
For me — it’s like an angel fell into my life.
"For me — it’s like an angel fell into my life. One who doesn’t function by societal standards. I’m not taking away from the pain and hardship that this diagnosis brings to families," O'Donnell wrote. "All of a sudden, there’s a child with a lot of needs and you spend a lot of time trying to connect on their level. It’s not easy — but it’s necessary to let them know they are seen."
The mom of three added that she never wanted her youngest daughter to "feel shame about her diagnosis," and instead decided to tell her "from the start that autism is her superpower." Now, the actor says, she hears her daughter introduce herself to strangers, telling them her name, her age, and saying "I have allergies and autism."
O'Donnell went on to describe her daughter as being "endlessly curious," so the former talk show host "focused on how to enable her to learn in a way that her brain was set up to learn." She wrote that she knew it would be important for her daughter's self-esteem to "get her reading," and found a "great school in Los Angeles" that has "all kinds of neurodivergent kids and special-needs learners" and has helped her daughter read at grade level.
"It's a beautiful melting pot," O'Donnell added.
O'Donnell wrote that Dakota "feels things deeply but doesn't always express emotions," and during a drive home told her mother that there was "water on my face." O'Donnell went on to explain what tears are and asked her daughter if she was sad.
"I held her and let her cry," she wrote, "reminding her everyone has feelings."
The former "The View" co-host revealed that when Dakota was 5 years old she "asked if she could talk to her birth mother," and during a FaceTime conversation asked her: "Are you the lady whose tummy I was in?" Dakota then went on to tell her brith mother that, "I just wanted you to know I'm the kid that was in there, and when I got born, my mommy held me and I squeezed her pinkie, and I am with her. So I Just want to let you know that's what happened to me. Bye."
The conversation left O'Donnell and her daughter's birth mom in tears, she wrote, adding that the exchange was "a pretty intense, complex, emotional thing for a little girl to put together."
Dakota’s autism forces me to see the world from a completely different place.
O'Donnell wrote that as her daughter nears 10 years of age, she is thinking about what it was like for her when she was 10.
"I was 10 years old when my mom died of breast cancer," she wrote. "It’s a shocking thing to lose a mother at a young age. Your mom is the center. You need them for everything: training bras, transitioning into puberty. Going through that on my own was a scary part of my childhood. You feel very alone. I don’t ever want Dakota to feel that."
O'Donnell ended the touching essay by explaining to readers that "Dakota's autism forces me to see the world from a completely different place," adding that her daughter is a "gift from another dimension."
"She teaches me. To be able to see the world as she does — for me, it’s been a wonderfully magical experience," she wrote. "I’m so glad we have each other."