While I often write about serving students in regular education classrooms or learning support, today I’d like to discuss supporting our students in the autism support classrooms- particularly those who are non-speaking or minimally speaking without mastery of robust AAC. I’d like to discuss the possibility, if not likelihood, that these students are Gestalt Language Learners (GLP).
Child Language Learning: Analytical vs Gestalt Language Processors
Per the research by Margo Blanc and others, we know that there are three natural ways to learn language: Analytical, Gestalt, and a hybrid or dual-processing model.
Analytical Language Learners basically build up language from sounds to words, two-word utterances, phrases, and finally sentences. I think of them as “Bottom Up” language processors.
In contrast, Gestalt Language Learners learn language “Top Down” in the sense that they might pick up entire language chunks first and repeat those chunks to the best of their ability. That language “chunk” could be one word in some cases like “apple”, a short phrase like “Let’s go now”, or even an entire paragraph that they heard from somewhere such as a tv show. Often with lengthier utterances, a child may not pick up all the words within the overheard script and therefore will mimic the intonation and only some of the words while the rest of their utterance may sound like jargon (babbling that sounds like true speech).
Gestalt Language Learners first learn language via these chunks and each “chunk” has one specific meaning to them depending on the context- but it’s not the literal meaning of whatever is being repeated. For instance, “are you okay?” might be the gestalt or script a child is repeating to mean “I am hurt” because that is what they’ve heard others say to them or to those around them whenever others have fallen or otherwise been physically injured.
Gestalt Language Learners need more time and more steps to get from understanding language chunks to comprehending the meaning of individual words and ultimately producing their own creative, novel sentences. We might think of these type of students as heavily echolalic or major scripters.
The First Four Stages of Natural Language Acquisition
According to Blanc, here are the 4 stages of Natural Language Acquisition (NLA) for these gestalt language processors:
Stage 1: whole gestalts or echolalia/scripting when the child repeats something heard verbatim: “let’s go” as a request, “it’s bath time”
Stage 2: mitigated gestalts when a child combines and mixes/matches the gestalts or scripts learned to make something “new”, “let’s go bath time” to request bath or bath time
Stage 3: isolated single words that used to make two word combos or word+word and word+adjective: bath, big bath or bath big, bath duck (toy duck for the bath)
Stage 4: Self-Generated Grammar when the child is producing “original sentences” of their own and experimenting with increasing complexity as well as grammar: “let’s we go to Please Touch Museum”
As you can see, a GLP will only understand single word meanings and novel word combination at Stage 3… there’s a whole 2 Stages before they are where an analytical language-processing child might be in their First Stage! The gestalt language processor also tends to pick up their gestalts or scripts based on intonation patterns that draw their attention as well as other factors like their interest and emotional state in the situation that they have overheard the language.
So you might now be asking: what does this having to do with my middle and high school students in Autistic Support classrooms?
Well, the reality is that an estimated 75% of autistics are gestalt language processors. While many of our autistic students move past Stage 4 and go on to novel utterances when they are young, some of our older students may still be in Stages 1-4. That means that the strategies one would use for a young GLP are the same ones we should be using for older students; our approach should depend on the child’s Stage rather than their age! So what do we do at each Stage?
Speech-Language Therapy Approaches for Stage 1-4 Gestalt Language Learners
Stage 1: Model entire gestalts during fun and regulating activities. The gestalts need to be relevant to their interests and classroom experiences, obviously. Some examples of possible gestalts might be “Let’s go”, “I need a break”, or “I don’t like that”. You should only target a few at a time but can of course provide commenting models and respond to a child’s utterance when not modeling the target gestalts.
Stage 2: Mix and match the gestalts they have learned or mix the gestalts with another word or two. For example, “Let’s eat”, or “I need a puzzle.”
Stage 3: Model single words and two word combinations about things the child sees, hears, touches, and smells. For example, “pizza”, “lamp” and combinations like “blue lamp”, “table lamp”, “cheese pizza”. This is basically the “labeling” stage.
Stage 4: This is the grammar stage! You’ll want to look at the DST (Developmental Sentence Types) and DSS (Developmental Sentence Analysis), both discussed in this book, to figure out what grammar targets the student needs to work on. Again, starting with 1-2 target structures is great. To get more information on how to use these charts for therapy, I’d suggest the Meaningful Speech course on Gestalt Language.
So there you have it: The first 4 Stages of gestalt language learning and a *very quick*, *very simplified* guide on treatment. You can also use this NLA/GLP handout to explain the basics to families. To note, this post doesn’t do justice to the course I took on this with Meaningful Speech or the course on Natural Language Acquisition by Margo Blanc. I would also suggest her Facebook group Natural Language Acquisition Study Group to learn more about doing speech-language therapy for GLP/NLA students. But hopefully now you have another idea and approach to add to your toolkit for autistic older students!
Lee, Laura L. (1974). Developmental Sentence Analysis: A Grammatical Assessment Procedure for Speech and Language Clinicians. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Blanc, M. (2012). Natural language acquisition on the autism spectrum: The journey from echolalia to self-generated language. Madison, WI: Communication Development Center