Play & Gestalt Language Processors

gestalt cognitive processing play Nov 01, 2023

When supporting gestalt language processors, we use child-led therapy. Child-led therapy involves following a child's interests and allowing them to lead in your sessions. Rather than going into sessions with an adult-directed agenda, we enter the child’s world of play. We allow them to gravitate toward what they enjoy or what their body needs (jumping, crashing, etc). Many gestalt language processors have special/preferred interests in certain toys/activities/items.This may lead to them engaging with the same items each session. There are some things we want to consider if this is the case for a child you’re supporting.


One thing we want to consider is monotropism. Monotropism is a theory of autism developed by autistic people, Dr. Dinah Murray, Dr. Wenn Lawson and Mike Lesser in 2005. Murray & Lawson theorize that monotropic minds tend to have their attention pulled more strongly towards a smaller number of interests at any given time, leaving fewer resources for other processes. Therefore, if a child is highly engaged in their specific interest, it can take a lot of energy to switch channels of attention to different tasks/activities (Murray et al., 2005). 

Gestalt Cognitive Processing

Another thing we want to consider is gestalt cognitive processing. Gestalt language processors are also gestalt cognitive processors. If you have taken our Meaningful Speech course, you may be familiar with this term. We have a bonus module on gestalt cognitive processing presented by autistic speech-language pathologist, Rachel Dorsey. 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 are whole-to-part thinkers. 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. For example, 

  • A gestalt cognitive processor might experience speech therapy as: 
    • My speech-language pathologist picks me up from my class during Math. 
    • We walk down the blue hallway and say hello to Mrs. Smith on the way. 
    • We play with dinosaurs
    • We play with trains
    • We sing the clean up song 
    • We go back to class 
  • Therefore, introducing new toys with the expectation that the child has to engage with them, may change that “whole” experience for the child and make it no longer feel like speech therapy and could cause the child to become dysregulated. It can even cause this dysregulation to become embedded in the experience or routine and the child may become dysregulated each and every speech-language therapy session going forward. 

So what can we do?

    • Remember first and foremost that all play is okay. We want to meet a child where they’re at and we don’t want to force a certain type of play. Neurotypical and neurodivergent children play differently and that’s okay. It doesn’t make either way “wrong”. We don’t want to push neurotypical norms onto neurodivergent children. 
    • Introduce new items/objects but don’t force them. We want to keep monotropism and gestalt cognitive processing in mind. If we have the expectation that the child engages in these new items and/or focus on an adult-directed agenda forcing compliance to engage with these items, it can become distressing. Instead, think of these new items as a suggestion that the child can take or leave. We often suggest that people bring in 2-3 familiar items and 1-2 new items that are related to their interests. This can be done in any setting. 
    • Don’t overwhelm the child with too many items. Many children can get visually overwhelmed by too many items and it can reduce focus and working memory and increase cognitive overload. It can also cause our senses to work overtime and the child can become dysregulated (McMainis & Kastner, 2011). 
    • The child might not be ready for toy play. If a child comes into your sessions and does not engage with toys you have available, they may not be ready for them. Consider sensory-motor play and/or people play. Some examples include: 
      • People play:
        • Hide and seek
        • Ring around the Rosie
        • Row Row Row Your Boat
        • Peek-a-boo
        • Tag
      • Sensory-motor play: 
        • Swinging or dragging them in a blanket
        • Crawling through a tunnel
        • Jump and crash 
        • Obstacle course
    • Consider purchasing two of most items. This allows us to engage in what the child is engaging with without having to break apart the set. We want to keep all of the pieces/items together. If items from a set are missing or are being used while the child is engaging with them, this can be dysregulating. This can be very important for gestalt language processors who are whole-to-part thinkers.

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 and Communication Development Center's 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.


McMains S, Kastner S. Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex. J Neurosci. 2011 Jan 12;31(2):587-97. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3766-10.2011. PMID: 21228167; PMCID: PMC3072218.

Murray, D., Lesser, M., & Lawson, W. (2005). Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. Autism, 9(2), 139-156.

Take me to