The world is set up in a way that seems to presume linear development. Such presumptions are evident in milestones, curricula, and much more. It makes sense. Straight progressions, in all their simplicity and predictability, allow us to plan for the future with relative ease. While most people defy linearity at some point in some area of their lives, neurodivergent people often do so constantly – a tendency that neurodivergent people and supporters alike should consider when planning for support needs.
The primary cause for departure from linearity is perhaps context-dependence. In our complex world, abilities, memories, needs, and much more fluctuate depending on the context. Deviation from routine is an example with which many are acquainted. A person who is comfortable and confident within the familiarity of their usual habits and schedule may feel entirely overwhelmed when required to adapt to a change in that routine.
A related example is the shutdown. Shutdowns often occur in response to stress or exhaustion (or exhaustion from stress). In the midst of a shutdown, almost everything seems unbearably difficult. Even everyday tasks that sometimes come easily can become insurmountable. Communication may switch from semi- or mostly-verbal to nonverbal. Shutdown experiences vary, but changes in abilities and support needs are generally a hallmark of this experience.
Burnout, commonly associated with autistic people, is another experience that rejects linearity. Autistic people are often expected to “mask” – to assimilate to standards that are considered “socially appropriate,” “normal,” or (for those familiar with the lingo) “neurotypical.” However, much like any unnatural task, masking is usually unsustainable in the long-term. After a period of masking, autistic people become unable to maintain the masking behaviors they have been using. During a period of burnout, the person may appear to be “more autistic” because the burnout zaps much of the energy required to behave in ways that come less naturally. There is considerable overlap between shutdowns and burnouts, and the metaphorical line between the two is often blurred.
When considering one’s own support needs or those of another, then, it is often best to presume the needs will be nonlinear in some sense at some point. As such, if supports are faded, they should still be available for when they are needed. Multiple available modes of communication are particularly important, as inability to communicate effectively when one wishes to can add stress to an already stressful time.
Experiencing the world in a way that deviates from the way the world seems to have been set up is often stressful in and of itself. As such, in addition to anticipating nonlinearity in relation to usual supports and needs, neurodivergent people and allies may benefit from anticipating a particular spike in emotional regulation needs. Sudden change in needs can spike feelings of anxiety, guilt, frustration, helplessness, and vulnerability. Recognizing this potential and creating an atmosphere of support, acceptance, and respect for the person’s inherent value as a human being can help to mitigate the negative experience, allowing the person to focus more on meeting their own needs and making it through the difficult time.
Nonlinearity is a part of life. Honoring that fact allows people to be who they are.