In a personal essay, the A League of Their Own actress shared that she first knew something was wrong when her daughter—who she shares with late ex-wife Michelle Rounds—would not respond to her name being called, prompting her to undergo tests.
"When she was being tested [for autism], the doctor kept calling out to her 'Dakota, Dakota,'" O'Donnell wrote in People. "She didn't respond. Somewhere deep down I knew. Getting the diagnosis felt like I was punched in the stomach. I had to give myself a moment to go, ‘Okay, we're going to figure out how to get through it.'"
The former talk show host, 60, further wrote that while anyone can "read as much as possible" about autism, it's a spectrum, so it can be different for each person who has been diagnosed with it.
After Dakota, 9, was diagnosed, O'Donnell said that she felt "like an angel fell into my life."
"I didn't want Dakota to feel shame about her diagnosis," she continued. "I have told her from the start that autism is her superpower. 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."
O'Donnell —who is also mom to Parker, 27, Chelsea, 25, Blake, 22, and Vivienne, 19, who she shares with ex-wife Kelli Carpenter—wrote that she noticed her youngest child becoming "endlessly curious," so the comedian "focused on how to enable her to learn in the way that her brain was set up to learn."
She wrote that knew it would be important to Dakota's self-esteem to "get her reading" so she found a great school in Los Angeles that has helped her daughter learn how to read at her grade level.
"They have all kinds of neurodivergent kids and special-needs learners," the American Gigolo actress wrote, referring to the school. "It's a beautiful melting pot."
O'Donnell concluded the touching essay by explaining to the readers that Dakota is special, and her autism has made her see the world differently.
"Dakota's autism forces me to see the world from a completely different place," the former SMILF actress wrote. "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!"
She added, "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."