Is my non-speaking or minimally speaking child a gestalt language processor?

augmentative and alternative communication (aac) Feb 07, 2024

Short answer: They absolutely might be! A child does not have to be using mouth words to be identified as a gestalt language processor. Identifying a child as a gestalt language processor will help you better support more than just the child’s language development. It also helps us better support their cognitive processing, play, and more. If they’re an AAC user, or you’re considering introducing AAC, it will help you better customize their system to support their language processing as well. 

P.S.  We don’t use the terms pre-verbal and non-verbal, BUT your child may have been labeled with these terms instead of minimally speaking or non-speaking. Everyone is verbal! In this blog post we are talking about how much or how little someone uses mouth speech/mouth words.

How can I know?

  • The child can sing songs but doesn't have any "words." They are very musical. They may hum or sing before they’re “speaking”. 
  • The speech the child has is single words that have been taught.
    • For example: The child has many single words, but they do not combine them to expand their utterances. These single words may hold a much larger meaning for the child and may have been directly taught through a focus on labeling in past or current therapies/settings the child is in. 
  • The child is not easily understood but their unintelligible strings of language (sometimes labeled as “jargon”) has rich intonation if you listen closely.
    • The child may sound like they’re saying something familiar, you may even recognize where their language is coming from due to the intonation, but they are mostly unintelligible. 
  • If using AAC, the child is not making progress despite intensive intervention.
    • AAC was developed and set up for analytic language processors. Many gestalt language processors have many “stuck” single words with their device, but are not able to combine these single words into expanded utterances. 
  • The child studies and replays media clips (videos, songs, TV shows, movies).
    • The child may rewatch the same videos and replay the same parts of those videos. They may even use parts of videos to communicate. 
  • The child is a whole-to-part thinker (gestalt cognitive processor). Gestalt cognitive processing is when experiences are held as primarily episodic memories. Gestalt cognitive processors process events as a "whole" that is made up of very specific parts. They have a hyper-awareness of specifics and details in events that make up the entirety of the event, episode, or "whole" for them. This means that the specific details within an event should remain the same each time. If something within that whole changes, it can be very distressing for a gestalt cognitive processor.

What can I do?

  • Acknowledge all communication, even if it’s unintelligible, with a smile, head nod, saying "yeah", "okay" or repeating it. 
  • Try to investigate what their unintelligible utterances mean by looking into what they are watching, listening to and what people are saying to them. 
  • Begin robust AAC if you haven't yet! Model new gestalts for them both verbally and with AAC. 

Our steps are the same for any stage 1 gestalt language processor. All kids in the beginning stage of gestalt language development need more gestalts! They need these modeled naturally in their play and everyday life.

AAC Considerations

There are no prerequisites for AAC such as age, cognitive abilities, attention, low-tech AAC use, etc. It is impossible to accurately predict a child’s ability to learn. If you’re considering introducing AAC to your child or student… do it! Children who use AAC have shown improvements in behavior, attention, independence, self-confidence, class participation, academic progress and social interaction. AAC often supports individuals during times of dysregulation or when motor planning is unreliable. Even if a child has access to mouth words, it does not mean that they cannot benefit from AAC. When introducing AAC to a gestalt language processor you’ll want to consider the following.

  • Adding personalized gestalts/scripts onto their device.
  • Model gestalts/scripts on the device and speak them outloud. 
  • Program and use gestalts/scripts across contexts (e.g., playing, transitions, meals, engaging in media.
  • Program and model phrases (potential gestalts) across different language functions (e.g., commenting, protesting, sharing joy).
  • Honor and accept all forms of communication. Be open to using different forms of AAC to expand communication (e.g. video use).

If you’re looking to dive deeper into AAC, consider taking our AAC for gestalt language processors course. It is a self-paced course for speech-language pathologists and assistants, parents and other related professionals. It will teach you how to identify, evaluate, and support gestalt language processors (GLPs) who currently communicate using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) or who you think may benefit from AAC. We’re celebrating the ONE YEAR anniversary of the course’s release. To celebrate, we’ve created a freebie handout for you on AAC Myths. You can download it here.

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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