Gestalt Language Processors

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Gestalt language processors. This term is not new, but people are now becoming more aware of it. However, many parents, teachers, and even SLP’s are still unclear on what gestalt language processing means. Let’s break it down!

What Is Gestalt Language Processing?

There are two ways that children learn and develop language. Most typically developing children are analytic language processors. This means that they learn language in more of a typical, sequential order. For example, they learn single words first. Then, they start combining two words before moving on to short phrases and sentences. This is what we are most familiar with.

The other style of language development is gestalt language development. Children who fall into this style of language development start speaking in “chunks” of language. This often starts with echolalia. Echolalia is when children repeat what another person has said. There are two types of echolalia (source: American-Speech-Hearing-Language Association):

  • immediate echolalia refers to utterances that are repeated immediately or after a brief delay
  • delayed echolalia refers to utterances that are repeated after a significant delay (Prizant & Rydell, 1984). Echolalia is prevalent among individuals with ASD who are verbal and may remain as part of their verbal behavior for some time (Fay, 1969)

A gestalt is “a chunk of language that the child has stored in their memory for later use” (Alexandria Zachos, MS, CCC-SLP/L).

In the beginning, these children produce chunks of language that they have heard. For example, they may sing entire songs. They may repeat words or entire phrases that they have heard (e.g. “do you want to go outside”). People used to think that echolalia was meaningless and had no purpose. But, over the years research has shown that many times it DOES having meaning. It just might not be as apparent to us what the meaning is.

An example of this is a former student of mine who would say “see you later” during different learning activities. It would start out with him simply saying the phrase in a calm voice. Then, he repeated that phrase over and over and his voice sounded more stressed. Over time, I figured out that he would say this when faced with a new activity that was difficult for him. It didn’t mean he was saying goodbye. The gestalt phrase “see you later” meant “I want to be done”. Once the meaning was clear, I was able to honor it. I reduced the difficulty of the activities too.

Another example of gestalt language processing is a student who walked over to sit by me, but missed the chair and fell on the ground. She looked toward me and said, “we all fall down!”. This little girl often sings entire songs (nursery rhymes and children’s songs from YouTube). The phrase “we all fall down” is from the song “Ring Around The Rosey”. She took that part of the song and used it appropriately! Because she is a gestalt language processor, she used this gestalt (delayed echolalia) to let me know she fell. If she was an analytic language processor, she may have said “I fell” or “fall down” This is more self-generated language. See the difference?

two cartoon pictures of a sad little boy sitting on the ground

Who Are Gestalt Language Processors?

Most autistic children are gestalt language processors. While all children repeat others (echolalia) while developing language, they quickly move on to using single words to communicate. For autistic children, the echolalia continues. Barry Prizant determined that there are 4 consecutive stages for gestalt language processors. Autistic children move through each stage moving from mostly echolalia to mostly self-generated speech. Now, there are 6 identified stages. Marge LeBlanc, out of UW-Madison, has done a tremendous amount of work in this area. She is the author of the book “Natural Langauge Acquisition On the Autism Spectrum“.

Where Can I Learn More?

There are a couple of ways to learn more about gestalt language processing. Barry Prizant has a fantastic book out that addresses this topic: Uniquely Human: A Different Way Of Seeing Autism. There is also an audiobook version.

Marge Blanc has also been a pioneer when it comes to Natural Language Acquisition and gestalt language. Her book can be purchased here.

The most recent learning opportunity when it comes to this topic is through one of Marge LeBlanc’s mentees. Alexandria Zachos, MS CCC-SLP of Meaningful Speech developed an online course titled The Meaningful Speech Course. This course is easy to follow and provides invaluable information about gestalt language processing. I highly recommend it to educators and parents!

To learn more about echolalia read my blog post about the topic and watch the replay of my mini-training titled “Reframing Echolalia”.

Learn more about autism and setting up a self-contained autism classroom with this free Autism Classroom Guide.

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