Rosie O’Donnell Pens Essay About Her Daughter’s Autism: ‘She Teaches Me’

"The sense of vulnerability that comes with having a kid with autism has been a gift to me," O'Donnell writes. "She teaches me."

Rosie O'Donnell published a moving essay this week on her experience raising her youngest daughter, Dakota, who was diagnosed with autism when she was 2 years old. The experience continues to teach O'Donnell about having "compassion much deeper than I ever did" and to "really listen and communicate in a way I never had with my other kids," she writes. Though candid about the struggle of such a learning curve, O'Donnell is clear: "The sense of vulnerability that comes with having a kid with autism has been a gift to me," the 60-year-old actress writes. "She teaches me."

The essay, published in People, starts with a recap of how Dakota first received her diagnosis. O'Donnell writes that her daughter "was always highly verbal" and that "she has always been very cuddly...I thought she was quirky — and beautiful and perfect." 

Still, O'Donnell knew "something was off" when she noticed Dakota was not answering to her name, and that the diagnosis felt like "a punch in the stomach." Nevertheless, she quickly began gathering resources for herself and her daughter. 

"You can read as much as possible," she writes, "but they say when you meet one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. It's a spectrum. 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. 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." 

O'Donnell also writes about how she worked with Dakota to overcome the societal stigma that comes with a diagnosis like hers. "I have told her from the start that autism is her superpower," she writes. "I hear her announcing to strangers, 'My name is Dakota. I'm 9 and I have allergies and autism.' It's like a different operating system."

Dakota is now almost 10, the same age that O'Donnell was when she lost her own mother to breast cancer. "When each of my children turned ten...I have that year of thinking, 'I better not die,'" she writes. O'Donnell has four other kids: Parker, 27, Chelsea, 25, Blake, 22, and Vivienne, 19.

Though the fear is still present for Dakota's upcoming birthday, in some cases more so, she's also learned to look at life from a different perspective through her youngest child's eyes. 

"Dakota's autism forces me to see the world from a completely different place," she writes. "She's a gift from another dimension. The things she knows — about sea anemones and tide pools. I got to 60 not knowing about the Mariana Trench. Now I know all about it! Her ability to absorb information is unparalleled. I can imagine her winning on Jeopardy! someday. She teaches me. To be able to see the world as she does — for me, it's been a wonderfully magical experience. I'm so glad we have each other."