Gestalts: What they are and what they aren’t

May 15, 2024

We’ve teamed up with Meaningful Speech team member and instructor of our AAC for Gestalt Language Processors course, Laura Hayes (@aac_innovations) to dive deeper into what gestalts are and what they are not. When supporting gestalt language processors, it’s important to understand what exactly a gestalt is so that you can best support their language development. Even if something is a whole phrase and would be easy to mitigate (mix and match or trim down) in Stage 2, it does not make it a gestalt. Gestalts are not just any phrase the child hears or that you model. They are much more than that!

What is a gestalt?

  • Something such as a structure or experience that, when considered as a whole, has qualities that are more than the total of all its parts.
  • It is tied to the experience and can be thought of as a “soundtrack” to that experience.
  • Naturally acquired (it is not directly taught). A gestalt language processor is naturally picking up whole strings of language and processing, storing, and using them.
  • A gestalt is intonationally defined. Gestalt language processors are “intonation babies” (Rydell & Prizant, 1984)
  • Most cannot be taken literally.
  • A gestalt can be as short as a sound and as long as someone’s memory can allow for the episode.

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 a gestalt is not

  • Gestalts are NOT just phrases. A gestalt is not just any phrase you model naturally for the child or add to their AAC device and/or hope that they pick up. Even though it is a whole phrase and easily mitigable, it doesn’t make it a gestalt. While there are things to consider if potential gestalts you’re modeling aren’t “sticking”, ultimately, it is up to the child whether it is truly meaningful to them and they pick it up as a gestalt. 
  • Gestalts are NOT universal. There is not a set list of potential gestalts you should model for stage 1 gestalt language processors. The potential gestalts we model need to be individualized to every gestalt language processor you support. We want to take into consideration their interests, the current communicative functions they are/aren’t using, what they’re currently trying to communicate, etc. 
  • Gestalts are already whole so they are NOT to be added to or corrected (this includes single words). We need to consider a gestalt language processor's current gestalts when intentionally modeling potential gestalts. We do not want to model potential gestalts that would try to expand upon a current gestalt, even if it is a single word. This is because stage 1 gestalts are not flexible. We should always acknowledge them when a child uses them, but instead of trying to change them or expand upon them, we should let them be, and model novel potential gestalts that are easy to mitigate (mix & match or trim down) in stage 2. 
  • Gestalts are NOT necessarily a literal meaning of the words they consist of. In Stage 1, gestalt language processors do not recognize each word within their gestalts as a single unit of meaning. They are picking up gestalts based on their intonation and experience behind them. Therefore, we often cannot take them literally. They may seem completely out of context for you as the communication partner, however, they are very much in-context for the child and where they derived it from. We need to focus on doing the detective work and determining the true meaning of the gestalt. 

How does this apply to AAC?

The gestalts on a device are individualized for the user. Gestalts that are added to an AAC system may need to have the original audio source (or potential video) for them to hold the same meaning/value for the user. If modeling potential gestalts, offer them around rich, meaningful episodes and experiences. Honor and acknowledge all modes of communication such as spoken words, a speech-generating device or echopraxia (gestalts with body movements).

How can I best support a gestalt language processor who uses AAC or could benefit?

  • Taking language samples vs. testing. If the child is non-speaking to minimally speaking, during language samples you are looking at more than just spoken words. You write down the sounds you hear, and what they're doing with their body. 
  • You acknowledge all communication! Even if you don't know the meaning or what they're trying to communicate. 
  • You are exploring robust AAC if the individual is nonspeaking, minimally speaking, or whose speech does not support them to autonomously communicate to communication partners across situations and environments. If they are in stage 1-2 you are modeling individualized gestalts around meaningful experiences. 

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. We just released a new FREE masterclass on echolalia and child-led therapy that is perfect for anyone starting their learning journey or on the fence about purchasing our courses! 
  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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