Groundhog Day for a Father of a Son with Autism,Part 1

autism

“Groundhog Day” has become part of our everyday lingo, based upon the 1993 movie. The term has come to mean an unpleasant situation that repeats over and over again. Have you ever thought what it would be like if you were weatherman Phil Connors? Stuck and re-living the same day for who knows how many days or months? Do you wonder what you would do if you were stuck and suffering literally through the same day over and over again?

I have a friend who has a son with classic autism and other medical complications. Some days his son will have horrible tantrums and bang his head on the wall. The walls in his house have been patched, but the memories and the worries live on. He says that his life feels like “Groundhog Day.”

In the movie Bill Murray plays Phil, who is an arrogant and sarcastic weather forecaster. Phil spends the night in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in order to broadcast the annual ritual of the coming out of the groundhog. When he wakes up the next morning at 6 AM again, he is annoyed to discover that he is trapped for a second night because of a snowstorm. It turns out to be the morning of the day before, and everything that happened the day before happens all over again.

This goes on day after day no matter what Phil does. If he does nothing different events repeat as on the first day. But if he changes his behavior, people respond differently and then all kinds of possibilities open up. Either way each day he remembers what happened in the previous editions of the same day.

As the days pass, out of desperation, when he cannot seduce her, Phil opens up to his producer, Rita. Through the intimacy, something changes. Phil begins to live more fully each day in a way that he has never done. When he comes across a street person, he takes him out to eat. His compassion for the old man makes him want to help people. Having suffered, he finally becomes able to empathize with other people’s suffering. He becomes a local hero.

What is so powerful about Groundhog Day is the window it gives us into the experience of what it would be like to make a breakthrough like this in our own lives. When we get beyond the denial and resentment over the conditions of our lives, and accept our situation, then life becomes authentic and full of meaning and compassion.

The pain of my son’s autism over 30 years ago kicked open that door for me. My awareness has grown ever since. When we can’t change or fix something, it’s common to believe that tomorrow will be exactly like today. If I just try hard enough, I’ll get through it. Thinking like this binds us to the stories of our past, clouds the present, and limits our vision of the possible. We cannot control what autism or another serious issue can do to our lives. We cannot determine what emotions will arise within us. We are often rendered powerless.

What we can do is to relate to our lives differently. This means accepting that change is inevitable and to believe that it’s possible. Our feelings come and go: happiness, sorrow, laughter, worry… We may be fearful or worried in the morning, and that feeling may go by the afternoon. Hopelessness may be replaced by a glimmer of optimism. Even the most challenging situation is always unfolding and shifting.

Even in our pain and suffering, we can find a way to go on and keep trying to look for the possible. This is not a Pollyanna where everything will be just fine. Nor is it about replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts. But going on with courage, then as long as we are alive, the possibility of change is alive. We cannot control the thoughts and emotions within us nor the universal truth that everything evolves and changes. We can, however, just be aware and alert.

My friend’s son can be having a good day, sweet and innocent as only a child with autism can be. And then out of nowhere, this boy erupts in pain into a horrible tantrum, banging his head. This boy’s mother and father suffer deeply, but they don’t give up. They love him, and each other, and they keep living as best they can, helping others, and trying to help their boy.

So when you find yourself stuck in your personal “Groundhog Day.” Take a step back; check in to your thoughts and feelings; question your perspective and the story you are telling yourself. Look for a fresh viewpoint; reach out for support. Search for the light by coming out of that hole you’re in. As Mahatma Gandhi implored us, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

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About Robert Naseef

Robert Naseef, Ph.D., speaks and writes in a singular voice as a psychologist and father of an adult son with autism. His latest book, Autism in the Family: Caring and Coping Together (2013) by Brookes Publishing includes advance praise from autism experts, parents, and people with autism such as Temple Grandin and Stephen Shore. Learn more about Robert at www.alternativechoices.com

3 thoughts on “Groundhog Day for a Father of a Son with Autism,Part 1

  1. stephen olitsky

    “Even in our pain and suffering, we can find a way to go on and keep trying to look for the possible. This is not a Pollyanna where everything will be just fine. Nor is it about replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts. But going on with courage, then as long as we are alive, the possibility of change is alive. We cannot control the thoughts and emotions within us nor the universal truth that everything evolves and changes. We can, however, just be aware and alert.” – sound advice

    Reply
  2. Lois Pasapane

    As a mother of a 30 year old son with autism, you would think that I would read every positive story about people with autism being successful and happy, but I don’t, not any more, because I feel so guilty about my own son’s lack of success. My son is on the spectrum so was diagnosed and misdiagnosed a lot in his early years (30 years ago, the understanding of autism was very different than today), and he does have a lot of skills, especially visual memory skills, and some pretty decent sports skills, too (he played softball on a Special Olympics team for years), but all of these skills go left pretty much unused because of his levels of anxiety and frustration which prevent him from participating in anything that requires effort on his part. He won’t do anything because of his fear that he will fail, or do something wrong. He is living in a community in Atlanta and his counselors say he is doing well, although he does not participate as much as he could, and does have some meltdowns when things don’t work out as he thinks they should. His biggest obsession (and he has many) seems to be with us, his parents. He calls us constantly, cries about coming home and when we bring him back to Atlanta after being with us for holidays (like this Christmas), he becomes so belligerent that we all end up crying. He has been at the facility for well over a year, so the ” give it time” message has gotten old. I don’t believe it is the facility because he has done this since day one at school, events, etc.. We get reports that he does fine when we leave, but getting him there is a nightmare. All I want is for him to be happy and secure, but all of our attempts with therapies, meds, behavioral interventions, etc do not seem to have worked. I want there to be a happy ending like some Hollywood movie, but that does not seem to be in the cards, so I guess I have to take to heart, “going on with courage…as long as we are alive, the possibility of change is alive,” and to take the advice to, “be aware and alert.!”

    Reply
    • Robert Naseef, Ph.D.

      My life, like yours Lois, does not have a Hollywood ending. My belief is that you and his father have done the best you could under the circumstances and so has your son. My son, now in his mid 30s, has been in a group home in the Philadelphia area for many years. The sense that your son is fine when you leave, just like a young child who cries when left off at school, may indicate that he is happy in his life. Perhaps that is all any parent can hope for. As parents of adult children, our job and our heartaches may go on, but can can still find a peaceful way to live inside ourselves doing the best we can. Again speaking for myself, I find peace and serenity in knowing that in my family everyone has done their best.

      Reply

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