We’re Mules, Not Horses

These may not be mules, but they’re definitely badasses.

Me: (notices that several recent posts have been about animals, either literally or metaphorically)

Me: (has zero problems with this)

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been hearing a bit about autistic burnout. It’s been hard to find more than anecdotal information about it, because there aren’t any big studies or even that many small ones.

But the information I was able to dig up really startled me.

It turns out – and I know this is shocking but brace yourself and hear my whole thing and don’t be embarrassed if you have to look up any of the words I use here – autistic people sometimes get physically and emotionally exhausted. Especially if they’re working in an environment where they aren’t allowed to take breaks. Especially especially if they feel pressured to present as upbeat and engaged every minute of every work day.

Weird, right?

The New York Times article I found makes it clear that burnout presents differently in autistic people. But everything it said about what leads to burnout makes me wonder if maybe neurotypicals should be taking better care of everyone.

Because it’s not as if autistic people suffering from burnout are responding utterly randomly to things that shouldn’t be a problem to anyone. It’s not like we come into a meeting room, screech “OH GOD WHY ARE THERE SO MANY RECTANGLES,” and then hide in a broom closet for 19 hours straight.

We need enough sleep. We need enough time away from work – really away. We need downtime. We need regular breaks.

And yes, okay, we need to stop having to apologize for being who and what we are. We’re carrying the additional stress of having to present as neurotypical even on a perfectly “good” day at work. Definitely. No question.

But let’s talk about that other stuff for a minute. Let’s take a look at the first person that Times article talks about.

Tyla Grant gets so exhausted sometimes that she has a hard time functioning. There’s a picture of her sitting out in a beautiful patch of nature, clearly trying to get her autistic act together. “It’s important for autistic people to find ways to rest and recharge when facing burnout,” the small print next to this photo explains earnestly.

As opposed to neurotypical people, who never face burnout and if they ever did they should just power through until they feel better.

Come on. I just Googled “getting back to nature to avoid stress and burnout” and was instantly rewarded with an article from just a few months ago about how spending just 10 minutes a day in a natural setting can reduce stress and “improve mood, focus, and physiological markers like blood pressure and heart rate.” This article is aimed toward people who may be dealing with financial insecurity and/or working too much. Because apparently those can be stressful even for neurotypical people. Like, to the point where even THEY can face burnout!


Tyla Grant is described as holding down a full-time job in advertising, creating content regularly for a podcast, YouTube channel and Instagram, AND attempting to start a nonprofit.

Why is the fact that she gets emotionally fried sometimes being treated as proof that sometimes autistic people face burnout and need to take care of themselves?

Shouldn’t anyone who’s basically working three jobs be cautioned to practice proper self-care and keep an eye out for signs of incipient burnout?

Here’s another New York Times article – this one about how people should proudly and unapologetically go ahead and take a nap at work. It’s good for you, dad gum it. You need enough rest. You could burn out if you get too tired!

Here’s an article from Forbes about the benefits of meditating at work. Which sounds a lot to me as if they’re saying maybe all workers should take a regular break from being expected to talk and meet one another’s eyes, and should even – what the what! – be offered a nice quiet safe place to go and mentally get away from it all.

Here’s another Forbes article. This one’s about how really – no, really! – people should take little breaks during the day even if they’re at work. “Employees who believe that they must work 24/7 to achieve a good standing in the workplace have the wrong idea,” this article insists. “And unfortunately, employees often gain this idea through employers’ attitudes.”

I’m not saying that the support needs of autistic people shouldn’t be written about, focused on, or given some compassion.

I’m saying that in this particular context, our support needs are very basic human needs.

When I was a kid, I read something about how mules are smarter than horses because if you ask a mule to do too much, it will flat-out refuse. A horse can be worked nearly to death if its human isn’t careful.

I was longing for a horse at the time (okay, I still am), so it was hard to accept any criticism of my then-favorite animal. But even I could see that mules had the right idea.

I looked it up just now and guess what? Horses are great. Of course they are. They’re beautiful and magical and I want to go pet one right now and braid its cute tail.

But horses really aren’t as intelligent as mules.

Mules have better memories, better common-sense, and a better sense of self-preservation than horses do. That so-called stubbornness of theirs manifests itself when they won’t do something potentially harmful, which seems less like stubborn and more like smart.

And as this delightful article points out, if a mule doesn’t see the point of doing something, it won’t do it.

I think I want a mule now.

I’m pretty sure I want to be one.

And I’m positive that we’d all be better off if we acted more like mules than horses.

Pretty isn’t everything.

One thought on “We’re Mules, Not Horses

  1. I think stress affects the neurodiverse and neurotypical equally. The difference lies in what is a stressor. For most autistics, face to face communication is very hard work. Attempting to read facial expressions and body language is very hard work which increases exponentially with each person that comes into the mix. Even in family situations with 5 or more people, I’m exhausted before the conversation has even started to warm up.

    The other issue is that I’m not able to filter out any of the sensory input I receive. I have to process it all. That too takes a lot of work. Non-autistic people do, I believe, recognise that stress and exhaustion is harmful. What they don’t, and sometimes refuse to see is that the environment created by and for neurotypical people is inherently exhausting and stressful to autistics.

    Liked by 1 person

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