Key terms to know about Gestalt Language Processing

Jan 10, 2024

If you’re new to gestalt language processing, there are key terms you should know that will make diving deeper into the information available easier to understand and help you better support your child(ren) or students. 

What is gestalt language development?

Gestalt language development is the natural language development of gestalt language processors. It is a completely normal, natural way to develop language. Most autistic children are likely gestalt language processors, however, both neurotypical and neurodivergent children can develop language this way. There are six stages of gestalt language development. Not all children will need support going through these stages, but some will. Just like analytic language processors, gestalt language processors can be delayed in their language development too. Language processing is a continuum (from analytic language development to gestalt language development) and our work here at Meaningful Speech is focused on people that are “fully gestalt” and need language support. 

What is a gestalt? 

Many people refer to gestalts interchangeably as “scripts'' but they’re much more than that. When a child is in Stage 1 of gestalt language development (see below), they are using gestalts to communicate. A gestalt is… 

  • Naturally acquired (it is not directly taught) 
  • Intonationally defined.
  • As short as a single word or as long as a movie. 
  • Holds a larger meaning and usually tied to an emotional or dramatic experience.
  • Most cannot be taken literally.

Let’s look at some examples: 

  • Long string of words stored from something someone said, media or music.
  • Intonationally defined strings of language that may or may not be intelligible (easily understood) to others.
  • Single word that holds a larger meaning (e.g. child uses single word “dog” anytime there is a dog, any pet, that dog song, the neighbor with or without their dog). If a child can label or name colors, shapes, numbers and letters but isn’t combining these words flexibly into 2+ word combinations, these single words may be stuck single word gestalts.  

What are the stages of gestalt language development? 

Stage 1: Delayed Echolalia
Scripting whole gestalts from life or media, single word gestalts, and/or intonationally defined strings of language from people, media, or books. 

Example: "There's a monster at the end of the book!" 

Stage 2: Mix and Match Stage or “Trimming down” (Partial Gestalts)
Mitigating larger Stage 1 gestalts into smaller chunks and also mixing and matching parts/chunks of Stage 1 gestalts into semi-unique utterances. 

Examples #1 (mixing of two partial gestalts): "There's a monster + under there" = There's a monster under there.
Example #2 (Trimming down): "There's a monster." 

Stage 3: Single Words and Two-Word Combinations
Breaking the script down to one word unit and/or making a new noun combination. Example: "monster", "scary monster", "monster red" 

Stages 4-6: New Original Phrases or Sentences with Beginning Grammar, More Advanced and Complex Grammar
Putting word units together to make novel phrases or sentences. At Stage 4, children are using beginning grammar. At stages 5-6, children begin using advanced and complex grammar. Examples: “The monster goed under” (Stage 4) “The monster can’t get out” (Stage 5), “Shouldn’t he have come out from under the bed by now?” (Stage 6).

What is Natural Language Acquisition?

Natural Language Acquisition (NLA) is a framework first outlined in Marge Blanc’s book Natural Language Acquisition on the Autism Spectrum: The Journey from Echolalia to Self-Generated Language (2012). The framework is a description of gestalt language development developed by Blanc based on years of her own clinical research as well as the pioneering research of Dr. Barry Prizant, Dr. Ann Peters and their colleagues.

The framework provides us with a scoring system for the data we collect (spontaneous language samples) as well as how we can appropriately support gestalt language processors.

 Want to learn more in-depth information about how to support gestalt language processors?

1. There are many free podcasts, webinars and articles to get you started. A comprehensive list of resources can also be found on our website.

2. Consider taking the Meaningful Speech course to learn more about how your child or client processes language, how you can help support them from echolalia to self-generated (original flexible) language, child-led therapy, and neurodiversity-affirming practices. Looking for something shorter? We have a 1-hour introductory course perfect for extended family, daycare or school staff.

3. Consider taking our AAC + Gestalt Language Processing course. It will teach you how to identify, evaluate and support gestalt language processors who use AAC or who you think might benefit from AAC.

4. Look for a speech-language pathologist (SLP) who "gets it" and can help you in supporting your child's language development. Check out our registry for SLPs who understand gestalt language processing and child-led therapy.

5. Are you a school-based or private practice clinician looking for intake forms for new clients/students or creative visual reminder posters for your space? Check out the Meaningful Speech Marketplace.

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