What is Gestalt Language Processing (GLP) and what does that mean for visual strategies for autism?
The inquiry "What is gestalt language processing?" has grown in frequency, prompting an increasing number of therapists and educators working with autistic students to realize their lack of sufficient understanding regarding Gestalt Language Processing.
Many autism parents are picking up the vocabulary, too. So does that mean it is becomming a "buzz word?" Or, is there real understanding behind the term?
My Visual Strategies Workshops
I’ve been highlighting this topic more in my Visual Strategies Workshops which prompted a question I received recently after one of my programs.
That’s a great question, but it highlights some misunderstandings that need to be clarified. It’s really a problem with vocabulary. I’ll give a longer explanation to clarify the confusion. In order to do that, it’s necessary to frame the discussion with some information.
What is Gestalt Language Processing?
GLP refers to a way that some children learn language. In this learning style, the child memorizes or learns whole phrases, or “chunks” of language.
There are two typical or most common ways that young children develop the ability to communicate with speech.
In the “typical” language development that we are most familiar with Analytic Language Development (ALD). The child starts with single words. Their first words may be “mama” or “doggie” or “bye bye.” Then they move to two word combinations, then short phrases — and eventually longer sentences.
Gestalt Language Processing is kind of the opposite. They start with bigger chunks of language and eventually learn to separate it into pieces to use for more specific communication. This language style is called echolalia or delayed echolalia, depending on how it is used.
Who are Gestalt Language Processors?
There aren’t many statistics on this, but Gestalt Language Processing is a common form of language development in autistic children.
In my limited research, I found one source that suggested 50% and another with “an estimated 75 - 90% of autistic children learning language this way.” Another source stated that almost all autistic learners follow this learning pattern.
It’s also been stated that many at the “Asperger’s” end of the spectrum (when we still used the Asperger’s diagnosis) followed the more analytic language acquisition patterns.
But the really true answer is that we probably don’t know.
Some autistic children can be GLP, some can be ALP and others may be a mixture of both with a little dash of something else added. Just remember, we need to recognize that it’s most likely these students learn differently.
GLP is not just in autism. Neurotypical children can also learn language this way, but usually move through the phases quickly.
Clues to identifying this learning style include echolalia, “scripting”, extensive memorization, and attraction to melody/songs.
What is “typical language development”
Children who learn language in a “typical” way learn as they are exposed to the spoken language of those around them.
They are usually exposed to reading story books, watching videos or TV, listening to music and other sources of stimulation.
Typical language development has a “magical” quality about it. In all languages and cultures, language learning occurs. Children are not specifically taught how to talk, but they learn by being exposed to language.
Traditional Speech-Language Therapy
When children are delayed in developing verbal language, teachers and Speech Therapists use “traditional” language stimulation strategies such as imitation, labeling activities, play, reading stories and other activities to teach them words.
They try to create a “language rich” environment for the child. The underlying theory is that if the children are exposed to more language and get a lot of repetition, they will learn it.
GLP means students learn differently
Our GLP students learn in a different way than those who follow the typical learning path of analytic language processors.
I heard a story from a Mom recently about how her autistic son was in therapy and after lots of drilling, he could label over 1200 picture flash cards.
The problem was that he didn’t use any of those vocabulary words to try to communicate. This is an example of teaching strategies that do not work for Gestalt Language Processors.
Gestalt learning style – how to teach expressive communication
So what does this say about therapy and teaching these neurodivergent children?
If these students learn in a different way, we need to use different teaching strategies for them. We need to teach them the way they learn.
What is the best therapy for gestalt language processors?
Speech therapy intervention for gestalt language is the most effective when language is targeted in the most natural and engaging contexts as possible.
Typically, the Speech Therapist will engage in child-led play and the child's interests to target language. The result will be greater communication success than drill activities to label picture cards and learn rote sentences.
The website Meaningful Speech is the most complete resource I know of that provides extensive instruction to explain the learning patterns of GLP students and to answer the “how to teach” questions under the heading Natural Language Acquisition (NLA).
One of the articles on the Meaningful Speech website states:
“Gestalt language processors do not need visuals (i.e. sentence strips, flash cards, etc.) to pick up language. They can listen to the language in their environment, process, and use gestalts that are meaningful to them!”
It sounds like this could be the source of the statement, “using visuals does not help them become better at functional communication.”
The target of this statement is rote, memorized speech. Teaching rote language does not work.
WARNING: All visuals are not the same
This creates some questions about the use of visual strategies for autism. Luckily, there is an explanation where the reasons are quite clear.
All visuals (pictures) are not used for the same purposes
The flash cards and sentence strips referred to in the quote are examples of the structured language activities and “drills” that are used in some teaching settings to teach and expand language for those analytic language processors who learn language in the more traditional way.
They start with one word utterances or answers and students gradually learn to combine words to eventually build sentences. The theory is to expose them and fill them up with enough language and eventually they’ll begin to use it.
That’s the goal, but that’s not how our GLP learners learn language. And that’s why those kinds of visual teaching tools are not useful.
Visual strategies for improving communication
In contrast, the visual strategies that I teach about are highly effective for supporting individuals with autism. Many individuals with ASD are visual learners and often understand what they SEE better than what they HEAR.
That means they really benefit from visuals designed to get their attention, give them information, assist in making choices and many other functions. The primary focus is on receptive communication, however, they also aid many of those students in expressing themselves.
It’s important to note that much of the referenced focus on providing therapy support for those labeled GLP tends to aim at improving expressive communication.
The focus on using the visual strategies for communication, as I have taught for many years, targets first, their ability to understand. In reality, communication is complex and includes both understanding and expression. Providing support for both functions is important.
They are both addressing the unique learning style of these students and recognizing that it is different from what we could refer to as our more common “traditional” analytic language learners.
The “issue” appears to be more in terminology in describing visual tools and how they are used.
Here's a blog post that explains it more: Why we avoid sentence strips with gestalt language processors
What is echolalia in autism?
I remember reading an article written by Dr. Barry Prizant in1983 that was the first information I found that made sense to me to help me understand echolalia in that autistic population I was servicing. (Language Acquisition and Communicative Behavior in Autism: Toward Understanding the “Whole” of It)
He’s been my hero ever since because of his ability to view autism differently.
Autism teaching strategies
The differences between analytical and gestalt learning have been observed for many years. (Remember, the Prizant article was written in 1983). In spite of that, many SLPs and educators have totally missed this topic in their education . . . or at least the implications for a different approach to teaching have not been stressed.
This seems to be a “season” where more attention is being given to understanding these concepts in relation to autistic learning. More and more communication partners are identifying the GLP learning style.
Considering that, it’s important that GLP doesn’t just become the “buzz word” for the season. There is a lot of learning that communication partners need to do so they can best meet the unique learning needs of these students.
Many communication partners need to change what they do. But that’s not all that needs to change.
School curriculums that target the learning styles of analytical learners need to be reevaluated or adjusted to meet the learning differences of our neurodiverse population of students.
Different is not wrong
It’s important to note that we are highlighting differences in how the whole COMMUNICATION SYSTEM works for these students. . . both in receiving information and expressing themselves.
Understanding the autistic GLP learning style has major implications
Just because these students learn differently, it doesn’t mean they need to be fixed or changed. They are following a path to language acquisition and learning that many communication partners are unfamiliar with.
Most classroom teachers and many Speech Therapists frame their teaching and intervention based on the analytical style of learning. We have much to learn in terms of how to help or support these gestalt learners.
Much of our academic curriculum is based on the learning style of analytic processors. For example, think about how reading is taught. Phonics. Alphabet letters, sounds, then words and building up to more complex reading.
But we end up with students who don’t grasp those phonics skills after many years of instruction. Why? Phonics don’t work for a lot of these students. (But it’s always wise to remember about individual differences. Autistic Temple Grandin has been quoted as saying she learned to read via phonics).
Student enthusiasm for learning diminishes after sometimes years of effort to acquire these skills because no one is connecting with them the way they learn.
And we end up with students who can perform random rote skills that don’t generalize into their real life interests and activities.
(And that lines up with the Meaningful Speech blog post about flash cards and sentence strips).
Educational trends - mainstreaming autistic students
There continues to be a trend toward Inclusion of students with autism into general ed classrooms.
The theory is “it can minimize stigma against autism while students learn how to communicate appropriately with one another.
Having a student with autism in a general classroom also reduces negativity associated with autism, and children will learn how to work with one another.”
These are not bad goals, but the question is, how does this environment full of “analytic” teaching support the gestalt learner?
Autism communication strategies
We still have a lot to learn about educating our autistic students. Let’s make sure that GLP is not just a “buzz word” but that understanding what it means guides us to change.
It's important for all SLPs and educators who support these gestalt learners to answer the question, "What is Gestalt Language Processing" and then know what to do about it.
P.S. PLEASE COMMENT BELOW
This is an important topic that needs your feedback!