Introduction Does your child ever have difficulty listening to you and following instructions? You may find this especially difficult around the holidays, right after they get home from school, or during times that your child is out of their typical routine. As a parent or caregiver, you may find yourself often repeating instructions or raising […]
Is My Child a Gestalt Language Processor?
Does your child repeat scripts from a movie or a TV show? Does your child repeat long phrases frequently but have trouble communicating using single words? Your child might be a gestalt language processor. This means your child learns language differently than others learn. While learning and developing language, every child is different with respect to the support they need to become an effective communicator. It’s important that you understand what type of learner your child is to provide them with the right support.
There are two types of language processors: analytic language processors and gestalt language processors.
Analytic Language Processors
Children who are analytic language processors develop language beginning with small units and then build them up to larger units. These children begin to use words, combine words into sentences, and then add complex grammar to their sentences.
These children are able to generalize their learning to multiple contexts easily. For example, a child who is an analytic language processor may say the word “dog” to label a picture of a dog in a storybook, when seeing a dog on the street, or when playing with a toy dog. They understand the word “dog” and understand that dogs come in different colors and sizes. They can easily generalize their language to different situations and then build their use of words into sentences over time. See below for an example of a child developing language as an analytic language processor.
Gestalt Language Processors
Children who are Gestalt language processors begin developing language using memorized sentences or scripts rather than single words. This is because children who are gestalt language learners often have echolalia. Echolalia is when a word or phrase is repeated by another individual. There are two types of echolalia; immediate and delayed.
Immediate Echolalia is the repetition of a phrase immediately after it was produced. For example, a parent asks, “do you want the puzzle?” and the child says, “you want the puzzle?” immediately after.
Delayed Echolalia is the repetition of a phrase after a lapse of time. For example, a child repeats a quote from a T.V. show, such as “It’s me, Mickey Mouse” when greeting someone new. Another example is a child repeating a script from a previous experience, such as “Here you go” to request their parent to hand them an item. They are repeating a sentence or phrase they have heard in the past.
Children who have echolalia use these memorized scripts to communicate in specific contexts. Contrary to the analytic language processor, a Gestalt language processor has more difficulty generalizing their use of Gestalt to multiple contexts. While they may use long sentences, they do not understand the words that make up the sentences, nor do they understand the grammar used. Sometimes, you may hear them copying either your exact intonation or one used in a TV show. We often see gestalt language processors pulling from specific life experiences/events or movies/T.V. shows.
While it may appear that your child is simply repeating, echolalia actually serves quite a few functions for communication! Children use echolalia to express agreement, label, protest, request, provide information, take a turn, associate an event with a similar event, self-regulate, etc. (Prizant, 1983). As a parent, you may sometimes recognize where the gestalt or memorized sentence your child is saying comes from and be able to determine the reason or the purpose for why they are producing that script. Other times, it may be less clear where your child learned their gestalt from, but observing their behaviors when producing the gestalt learning is important to determine the reason for their use of echolalia.
Here are a couple of examples of children who have echolalia and are gestalt language learners and how I determined the reason or purpose of their echolalia.
I offered a child a car during a play activity and stated, “do you want the car?” and the child responded, “do you want the car?” while reaching to grab the car. In this case, the child was observed to have immediate echolalia, and he used it to agree. He agreed that he did indeed want the car. In this case, I observed the child’s body language and his attempt to grab the car in response to my question to determine his intent.
While I was completing a puzzle with a child, we discovered a puzzle piece was missing, and she stated, “What’s the matter, Peppa? I’ve lost my boots”. After speaking with the parent, I learned that the child referenced an episode in which Peppa Pig lost something, much like our lost puzzle-piece predicament. Therefore, she was observed to have delayed echolalia and used it to associate an event with a similar event (since she referenced an episode to reflect what she was going through) and to provide information about the lost puzzle piece. In this case, I used the parent’s knowledge of the script and the context of the play routine to determine the child’s intent.
Now that you have a general understanding of gestalt and echolalia let’s get into how gestalt language processors develop language. As stated earlier, Gestalt language processors begin developing language with large units, then break these large units into smaller units, and then build them back up again. In other words, they start off by using memorized sentences or gestalts; then, they break up these sentences into smaller phrases or gestalts. They use single words and then begin to combine words into their own sentences (which are no longer memorized scripts or gestalts).
See below for an example of a child developing language as a gestalt language processor.
Other Characteristics of Gestalt Language Processors
Many autistic individuals are Gestalt language learners, but not all Gestalt language learners are autistic. And there are children that may process language in both ways. Some other characteristics of Gestalt language processors include individuals who have difficulty with change, recognize patterns, have preferences for letters/numbers/shapes, have hyperlexia, and have limited reading comprehension (Audet 2022).
Following your child’s lead during play routines
Since Gestalt language processors have difficulty generalizing their skills to different contexts, we want to steer away from teaching language through highly structured and repetitive tasks such as flashcards. If we teach language through these methods to children who are gestalt language processors, we might see them memorize the flashcards but then have difficulty using this knowledge in everyday contexts. As such, it’s recommended that we make the most of everyday play routines that your child enjoys and use communication strategies during these routines. Play may look different for every child, but the most important thing to remember is that play is enjoyable and engaging for your child. Watching and observing is the best way to find out what type of play your child enjoys. For example, one child may enjoy pushing a car around, another child might enjoy lining up the cars, while another child might enjoy dumping the box of cars out and cleaning them up. Whatever play your child enjoys should be acknowledged and accepted as play. It is certainly okay to support your child in exploring other types of play, but we never want to discourage them from engaging in the play they find most enjoyable.
Acknowledging Your Child’s Communication
The first step in supporting a child who is a gestalt language learner is to acknowledge and respond to their current communication. Their gestalts or echolalia are communication! And it’s important that their communication partners learn how they communicate. This goes for both analytic and gestalt language processors. It’s important to build up a child’s confidence and their desire to communicate. By acknowledging your child’s gestalts, you’ll find them to be more willing to talk and eager to engage with you. So, what does it look like to acknowledge their communication? Repeat their script and then respond. Let’s go back to the example of the child stating “What’s the matter Peppa, I’ve lost my boots” when noticing the circle puzzle piece is missing. The parent could repeat the gestalt “I’ve lost my boots!” and then respond “I’ve lost the circle!”. In this way, their acknowledging the child’s gestalt and modeling a functional gestalt that works with the activity they are doing.
Natural Language Acquisition (NLA)Natural Language Acquisition is a treatment framework created by Marge Blanc based on former Gestalt research for children who are Gestalt language learners (Blanc, 2012). In this treatment approach, Blanc reviews six stages that a child moves through as a gestalt language learner. After a speech provider determines the stage your child is in, your child moves up the stages in the framework with the use of NLA strategies. If you think your child is a gestalt language learner and you are interested in learning more about the NLA approach, reach out to your local speech-language pathologist or healthcare provider.
Audet, L. R. (2022, August 18). Understanding and Treating Echolalia: When “You” Means “I”. SpeechPathology.com
Blanc, Marge. The Journey from Echolalia to Self-Generated Language. Communication Development Center. 2012.
Prizant, B. M. Language Acquisition and Communicative Behavior in Autism: Toward an Understanding of the “Whole” of It. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders. Vol. 48, 296-307, August 1983
Zachos, Alexandria. The Meaningful Speech Course. Meaningfulspeech.com