Katharine Beals

Adjunct Professor and Lecturer, Drexel and University of Pennsylvania

Catherine Johnson

Adjunct Professor, Mercy College


Facilitating Un-facilitated Communication in Autism: how systematic instruction and implicit learning can unlock what’s locked inside

What causes the language impairment in autism, and what is the solution? We begin by reviewing the various theories about how autism disrupts the mechanisms by which children learn and use their native languages. We’ll cover both the underlying science and the underlying pseudoscience, relating popular but misguided notions about language learning and behavioral challenges in autism to popular but misguided notions about child-centered learning and behavioral challenges in the general population. We then relate what actually works in education to what actually works in autism. In particular, we describe how nonconscious, statistical learning principles, combined with direct, systematic instruction and immediate, systematic feedback, can optimize language learning in autism–and also ameliorate behavioral and educational challenges. Finally, we discuss how these teaching and learning principles can be optimized, for autistic students, in interactive, computerized environments. Focusing on a new software curriculum, the SentenceWeaver, we review preliminary efficacy data and show videos of a non-speaking student working through several lessons in English sentence formation.


Katharine Beals teaches at the Drexel University School of Education and the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She specializes in issues relating to the education of
high functioning children on the autism spectrum, children with language delays, and non-native English speakers, focusing on linguistic software and sentence formation skills. Her autism and education articles have appeared on The Atlantic.com, Education Next and Education News. She is the author of Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward to Thrive at Home.

Catherine Johnson, Ph.D., is the co-author, with John Ratey, of Shadow Syndromes and, with Temple Grandin, of Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human, both New York Times best sellers.
She has written for numerous publications including Scientific American Mind. She teaches and tutors developmental writing at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, and was trained in precision teaching and curriculum design at Morningside Academy’s Summer School Institute and in the Hochman Method at The Windward School in White Plains, New York. She is working on a book about implicit learning and the cognitive unconscious.



Writing Wrongs

In this talk, we briefly describe the brain’s two learning systems, explicit (“rule-based”) and implicit (“information-integration”) learning. We then present a sentence-based teaching method, informed by research on second-language learning, that uses both systems to rapidly improve student writing. Working with a 63-word sentence, drawn from the New York Times, we explore methods for de-combining, re-arranging, and re-combining phrases in order to maximize readability and impact.