Gestalt Language Processing: What is it?

Gestalt Language Processing is a language learning style that autistic and allistic (non-autistic) individuals may have. This learning style is characterized by learning language initially in larger chunks that are intonationally defined. Gestalt language processors often “tune in” and grasp language with distinctive intonation, and may learn more language initially from songs or musical sounding utterances. This is in contrast to other children who learn language analytically, by acquiring single words as their first meaningful units of language. 

This language learning style has been documented by linguists since the 1970s (Nelson, Peters, Clark) who all described children who acquired expressive intonationally defined units that were phrases and sentences as their first units of language, versus children who gravitated towards single word labelling and nouns. Later when Dr. Barry Prizant studied autistic individuals’ communication, he saw the link between this “gestalt” style and what was happening when autistic communicators used delayed and immediate echolalia. Dr. Prizant recognized how meaningful and communicative echolalia and gestalts were, and that they became more flexible and were broken down over time as individuals learned to break down their longer utterances into smaller parts that could be combined and used in increasingly novel ways. Prizant identified steps to this process as echolalia became mitigated (broken down) until the point that a child would have single moveable words, and then could create self-generated grammar. Prizant coined this learning style “gestalt language processing” and also linked these individuals’ strong episodic and emotional memories for experiences related to their language learning (Prizant, 2012). 

Marge Blanc, SLP built on Dr. Prizant’s work, creating the Natural Language Acquisition framework to use with gestalt language processors. This framework involves gathering language sample and documenting language used by the individual in order to determine the best language models for the individual depending on their stage in this process. In NLA there is a large focus on language modeling, increasing the naturally acquired language an individual has through connection focused supports. Therapy using NLA focuses on connection with the child, rapport and trust building, accepting the child and their way of communicating and play. Sensory motor supports are encouraged in order to help a child regulate and access language. Parental involvement and modeling is a key aspect to encourage carryover of modeling at home and between sessions. Augmentative and Alternative Communication supports are encouraged to further support language development for gestalt language processors, and programming to specifically support the child’s processing style.  

If you think your child might be a gestalt language processor, check out Marge Blanc’s website for further information: The NLA handout describing this learning style and strategies that can be helpful for gestalt language processors can be found here in several languages:

If you would like further support to help your gestalt language processor, please reach out to our team.

*Please note we can only see clients in person or virtually that reside in the province of Ontario in Canada.*