This translator has autism: “When you are speaking in a second language, the emotions don’t hit as hard.”

Anouschka Schutte (52) is twice a translator: a translator between languages, but also a translator between the autistic and the non-autistic world. She calls herself an autism translator.

I asked her about her work, languages, and of course I asked her for tips. What can language teachers do to make their autistic students happier and more productive? What about managers? And how can autistic people best improve their English? Anouschka gave great tips on all these subjects, and more!

What is an autism translator?

I provide advice to companies and individuals about how life with autism can be as productive and enjoyable as possible.

I help companies to make small adjustments so that their employees with autism can be the best they can be. I also advise people with autism who have only just received their diagnosis, as well as those who keep running into the same problems.

Why did you decide to become an autism-translator?

In 2011, at the age of 40, I was given the diagnosis Autism Spectrum Disorder. I’m the kind of person who likes gathering information, so I immediately set about learning all I could about this subject. I looked back at my life and saw all the things I had had problems with as a teen and young adult through the autism lens. 

I also set about adjusting my life to my autism. My life is much more enjoyable now, much more optimal. I’m getting more from life because I am doing the things that are right for me, rather than the things that society expects from me. 

With so much knowledge on the subject, and my ability to look at things from my personal experience as well as from the information I had learned, it was not long before I was giving volunteer talks at schools and companies. A few years ago I started doing this professionally.

Why make the jump from volunteer work to professional work?

My main income is from translating, my working languages are Spanish, English and Dutch. However, the world of translation is changing. Though translation engines like DeepL and chat robots like ChatGPT will never be able to take over a translator’s job completely, I have noticed that I am getting less work than before. I still have enough work at the moment, but with an eye to the future, I decided it was time to diversify my work.

I thought, there are two things I know a lot about: translation and autism. Why don’t I take that second part of my life and do something more with it. So I took the course ervaringsdeskundige at Laudius, and here we are.

Do you think there is a link between autism and a love for foreign languages?

I can’t speak for everybody with autism, but I do have an idea about why I was fascinated by foreign languages as a child: when you are speaking a second language, the emotions don’t hit as hard. Because you don’t understand everything perfectly, there’s an automatic filter between yourself and the emotion.

I also see this in teenagers with autism. They often have a fascination with communicating in English, both in real life and online, for instance while they are gaming. My theory is that it has to do with this emotional filter.

You translate from Spanish. Why Spanish?

My parents have always been gripped by wanderlust (= reislust) and when my father’s company in kitchens and bathrooms stopped doing well in 1980 they decided to sell it and drive to Spain without a set plan. We ended up staying for a while. My mother taught me in our caravan, and I also went to a Spanish school for a while, so when we came back I was fluent. In fact, for a while there my Spanish was better than my Dutch!

And how did English come into it?

Once we were back in the Netherlands, I remained fascinated by languages. I was gripped by the English language especially and suggested to my parents that we should start speaking in English at home, which we did. I became so good that I am confident in calling English a first language.

You are the admin of the large Facebook group Vertalerskoffiehoek. As such, you are a bit of a celebrity to me! Is that something you hear more often?

It is, yes. When I organised the Tolk- en Vertaalcongres for example, people would come up to me and somewhat nervously ask me if they could possibly have some of my time. As if speaking to me was something really special. And there I was, thinking it was really special that they want to talk to me! All I do is manage a Facebook group! And I don’t even do that that well (laughs) our 10-year anniversary was last October and I completely forgot about it!

De Autismevertaler

Anouschka translates between the autistic world and the non-autistic world.

Do you want to make the autist in your life happier and more productive? Your child, student, staff member or colleague? 

Or perhaps you have autism yourself, and would like help in dealing with your school, work, family, or life in general. Whether you have just been diagnosed or have known about it all your life. 

Book a session with someone who really knows what she is talking about, because she has autism herself! Anouschka is flexible and will dive into your particular situation with you, and give targeted advice (= advies op maat). 

After having spoken to her for this interview, I can heartily recommend her. She knows her stuff, and is a thoughtful communicator.

Anouschka provides face-to-face sessions in Eindhoven and the surrounding region. You can also book a session via Zoom. Get in contact via her website.

Anouschka also writes a blog, you can read it here (in Dutch). She also regularly posts on LinkedIn, you can follow her here.

Though her website is in Dutch, Anouschka can also provide her services in English.

Anouschka’s tips

Like all my interviewees, Anouschka had a whole host of really helpful tips. I have categorised them into “Tips for dealing with autistic people in your classroom or at your company”, “Tips on how to improve your English for people with autism (and everybody else)”, and “Tips for people with autism who find themselves getting tired a lot”

Anouschka’s tips for dealing with your autistic student, employee or friend

Tip 1: ask someone with autism what terminology they would like to use

Personally, I refer to myself as an autistic person. I even have T-shirts to advertise the fact that I am an autist. I do that because I want to address the stigma surrounding that term. I use it precisely to show that it is not a profanity, it is not an insult. I use the shirts to open a discussion.

Some people don’t like to use the term “autist” or “autistic person”, they prefer “person with autism”, “person on the autism spectrum” or “person with ASD” (autism spectrum disorder). It’s an individual choice. So if you want to talk about autism with a person who is on the spectrum, the easiest thing to do is just ask them which terminology they prefer.

Tip 2: don’t use the term “autistic” to refer to your own behaviour, unless you are on the autism spectrum

Possibly a bit more common in Dutch than in English, but some people will jokily say something like “I like eating my M&Ms by colour, I’m a bit autistic that way”.

When I hear a remark like that, I will always mock-innocently say “oh, are you on the autism spectrum, too?” If they say yes, we can have a great conversation about it. But if they say no, then I politely explain that perhaps they shouldn’t use that word.

Tip 3: let an autistic child feel seen

Even though I didn’t know I had autism at the time, looking back I can see that I was a child with autistic behaviour during my secondary school English lessons. I always had my hand up wanting to say something or answer a question, always wanted the teacher’s attention. My English teacher dealt with that really well, by giving me extra books to read, material that would give me a bit more of a challenge, as I had been raised partly in English. It made me feel seen.

Tip 4: understand how people with autism listen

People with autism are not good listeners. They have to be able to link the things they hear to their own experiences to be able to process them. Instead of listening, they are responding. That also means they like mentioning their own experiences out loud. This is a way for them to check if they are understanding correctly.

When you explain something, the autistic person may answer with something from their own lived experience. This can be disruptive in a meeting or in the classroom, especially if the person does it again and again.

Understand that the individual is not being disruptive on purpose, they are just checking their understanding, and have momentarily forgotten about the other people in the room.

It also means that the person with autism only hears that part of the information that they are able to and want to respond to. The rest of it often just doesn’t get processed.

A person with autism finds it very hard to “park” an idea and come back to it later. Things have to be dealt with in sequence. “I have to process this thing now, otherwise I cannot listen to the rest.”

Tip 5: ask the person with autism to take the minutes (=de notulen)

One of the ways you can deal with the issue above, is to ask the autistic person in your group to take notes, The person will feel seen, but at the same time will no longer interrupt the lesson or meeting all the time.

Tip 6: find a way to tap into their interest

Many people with autism are very knowledgeable about a specific interest that they love talking about. Gaming, horses, a historical figure, space, you name it. If you can find a way to tap into this interest, then you will have made their week.

Instead of trying to get the outsider involved in the group, you can try getting the group involved in the outsider.

Don’t just let them speak about it, though, because they might never stop! For teachers: you could plan a lesson series on gaming terminology with that student as a special advisor, perhaps. Or of course the good old presentation about a subject of the student’s choice. You will become that student’s favourite teacher for the rest of the year! 

If your student with autism is an introvert, and you have trouble getting them to speak, it is still highly advisable to find out what their special interest is. In this case, not to put the student in the spotlight, but simply so that you can take an interest, make small talk about it. You will see a completely different student than the one you had in your class before.

Tip 7: allow your autistic employee to have a fixed workspace

Hot desks (= flexplekken) are difficult to deal with for people with autism. They like routine, knowing what to expect.

You don’t have to give them their own room, but allowing them the same chair each time will do a lot to make them more productive.

Tip 8: accept that your autistic colleague does not want to come to lunch

For an autistic person, a social lunch taps an enormous amount of energy. They will not be able to function properly the rest of the day. In my opinion, the fatigue outweighs the team-building benefits of these kinds of lunches. Find a compromise, like asking for their presence once a week.

This is also true for company outings. A friend of mine has an outing with colleagues at least once a month. I would go crazy if that were me!

Tip 9: reconsider group work

Group work costs students with autism an enormous amount of energy, energy that they will not be able to invest in actually understanding the lesson. 

The argument for group work is that students will go on to work in teams when they enter their professional life. However, people with autism will instinctively steer away from these kinds of jobs. There are plenty of jobs where team work is not required. 

This does not mean you should never do group work, but you will be doing your students with autism a huge favour by also regularly offering independent work. 

Tip 10: if the individual has friends, do not worry about them being “anti-social”

When I was young, I never went on any school outings. No field trips (= schoolreisjes), no school camps, no freshman orientation camp (= introductiekamp). I never went out for drinks “with the gang” on Friday afternoons.

But I still had friends, and I was perfectly content with my social life. I knew I wasn’t one of the popular kids, but I had my special interest, my horse riding, and my social life revolved around that. My friends were all quiet types who could respect the fact that I did not like big social activities.

Many parents and teachers think teenagers should participate with the group, even if they don’t want to. They think that “once you are out there, you’ll have fun”. This may be true, but if the teenager in question has autism, they will suffer sensory overload (= overprikkeld raken) and will be drained of all their energy.

Tip 11: let them play computer games

Not all, but many teenagers with autism like computer games. When they play a game that allows them to talk to other players online, this is a true form of social contact for them. It is a safe form of social contact.

If it is in English, this is firstly just cool, but secondly it also has to do with that emotional filter I mentioned earlier. The others are literally and figuratively at a safe distance. For those teenagers, these online contacts feel as close as real-life friendships.

Let them game! It allows them to practice friendship and social interaction in a safe way. These are things that are very tricky for people with autism to learn; friendship and social contact does not come naturally for them.

Of course, it is important that you take an interest, so that you know what is going on on their computer screens. 

Tips on how to improve your English for people with autism (and everybody else)

Tip 1: watch English shows with subtitles

If you watch the BBC on your television, you can switch teletext on and go to page 888. The BBC is very good at providing subtitles for all its programming. On streaming services like Netflix you can also usually switch English subtitles on.

By seeing what is said as well as hearing it, you are making it extra easy for your brain to learn the language.

An added benefit is that this way you can also learn how to spell the words. For English, especially, this is important, because English has such odd spelling sometimes. Take “subpoena” (=dagvaarding, uitspraak suh-pee-na) or “mortgage” (= hypotheek, uitspraak more-gidj). If you never see them written down, you might know the words, but would never recognise them when you are reading!

Tip 2: immerse yourself in the country, but do it your way

A classic tip that people give when it comes to learning a language is to go to the country where people speak that language, and immerse yourself (= jezelf onderdompelen) in it. Of course, for people with autism who have trouble changing their routine, or find social interactions give them sensory overload, this may not be true.

For myself, I can say that I went to Spain to refresh my Spanish, but I did this with a language school that included a place to stay. This worked really well for me, because it was adventurous but at the same time structured and safe.

This kind of thing is highly personal. Some other people with autism might like backpacking without an itinerary, or doing a workaway. Whatever works for you.

Tip 3: read English books, listen to English podcasts

For me as a person with autism, reading in English has a double advantage: I improve my English, but I also process the information better.

I find that when I read Dutch books, I read too fast. By reading in English, I am forced to slow down, which means I am actually getting more information from the book. I hardly read in Dutch at all, anymore.

Nowadays, I also listen to a lot of audio books and podcasts. This is a great way to increase your exposure to the language, and you can combine it with cleaning the house or walking the dog!

A great English podcast about autism: The Loudest Girl in the World.

Tips for people with autism who find themselves getting tired a lot

Tip 1: plan your life carefully

Life uses up a lot of energy for a person with autism. You have to be strategic. This doesn’t mean you can never go to a party, but when you do, you have to take into account that you will be too tired to function properly the next day. You need to plan your calendar accordingly, give yourself a day off after a busy social event.

Great further reading on this point is the spoons theory.

Tip 2: social life, work, family: pick two

I have a diagram on my blog with three circles: one for your social life, one for your work and one for your family. In my opinion, a person with autism cannot have all three. You have to pick two.

This is easy for me to say, I have a very quiet family life, without a partner or children. It is easy for me to focus on my work and my social life. In those times when I did have a relationship, I had to choose between work and my social life. 

(You can read more about this, and see the Venn-diagramm on Anouschka’s blog (in Dutch))

Tip 3: let go of conventions

Lots of people tell me they recognise the fatigue, but then I also see that they don’t truly take the advice above.

Influence from society, the media, our upbringing: it all tells us that doing things like taking a day off, or not going out to lunch with colleagues, is antisocial behaviour. We have been taught to conform to certain expectations. 

But if you allow yourself to give up some of these activities, you will see that your life will become much more manageable and enjoyable.

A great example is social obligations. In Dutch we even say “ik moet morgen naar een verjaardag” (I have to go to a birthday party tomorrow), “ik moet morgen met de kinderen naar mijn ouders” (I have to visit my parents with the kids tomorrow). There is much more flexibility here than you think, if you open the activities up for discussion. 

In my family we have agreed that we will no longer hold each other to family events for Christmas, Easter or birthdays. We also don’t give each other gifts for specific events.

Instead, we organise family gatherings at other moments, when it works for everybody. These don’t feel like an obligation, and are much more enjoyable as a consequence. And instead of giving gifts at certain occasions, I will give my mother a gift if I am out shopping and happen to see something I think she will like.

Interviews for English and the Dutch

You just read one of the interviews that I conducted for my newsletter English and the Dutch.

I interview people who work on the boundary between English and Dutch. There’s a lot of them out there! Teachers, translators, people in the tourism sector, people who promote Dutch-speaking regions abroad, and so on.

If you know someone I should interview, or if you would like to be interviewed yourself, please let me know! Just send me a message via my contact page.

Heddwen Newton is an English teacher and a translator from Dutch into English. She thinks about languages way too much, for example about how strange it is that these little blurb things are written in the third person.

Heddwen has two children, two passports, two smartphones, two arms, two legs, and two email newsletters.

English and the Dutch examines all the ways Dutch speakers interact with the English language. It has more than 800 subscribers and is growing every day. Sign up here.

English in Progress is about how the English language is evolving and how it is spoken around the world. It has more than 1400 subscribers and is growing every day. Sign up here.



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