Registered Special Educator (A64010)

Speech and Language are two separate entities, even though more often than not, we tend to substitute one for the other. While Speech refers to the physical aspect, production of sounds etc, language involves the cognitive component (the syntax, grammar, ideas etc).

While we tend to associate Speech with Communication, speech alone, will not lead to communication. A lot of children on the Autism Spectrum, for example, may have speech, but they might not be able to communicate even their basic needs, through words that they know/ have in their repository. The primary focus, must be on developing Communication for the child. That can be done through various methods

—Hanen, PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), Sign Language, AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) such as the Avaz app, S2C (Spelling 2 Communicate), RPM (Rapid Prompting Method) etc.

In children with Autism, we also tend to see evidence of Speech Apraxia, where there is a disconnect between the physical production of speech and their cognitive capabilities. While they may have an intact grammatical structure of words, they might be unable to reproduce that via speech.

Today, I would like to briefly touch upon GLP (Gestalt Language Processing) and Autism and especially my journey with it, so far. I will write a more detailed piece on its various stages etc, in a later blog.

Language Acquisition is usually seen as a Bottom-Up approach: a child begins to pick up sounds, then moves on to babbling, then single words, phrases, sentences, storytelling etc. By kindergarten/preschool, the child usually reaches this stage. This is also called Analytic Processing.

But there is another approach called the Gestalt Language Processing, wherein the Language Processing is Top Down. The child picks up entire phrases and sentences and then learns to mitigate it by breaking the “script” /whole phrases to add other words/phrases, to finally be able to self-generate language (which might not be grammatically correct initially, but may later evolve to achieve grammatical fluency.

Gestalt Language Processing is often seen as “Delayed Echolalia” and it is seen in both neurotypical children, as well as individuals with Autism.
This approach basically believes that there is a “communication intent”. That everything that is spoken by a child is done with an intent. No utterance /speech is meaningless. Everything is spoken with a certain understanding and is an effort to communicate.
So, is Gestalt Language Processing, a new thing? It is not. The first studies on it, were conducted in the early 1980s, but it was widely believed that children used both Analytic and Gestalt Language Processing (GLP), to process language. One of the reasons, GLP has gained attention recently, according to a blog “The Informed SLP”, is the sudden spate of pieces written by Autistic advocates, against Behaviour Therapy (BT) and their belief that BT puts an emphasis on changing how individuals with Autism, communicate with others. For a long time, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) chose to ignore “scripts” spoken by individuals with Autism, as they considered them to be “meaningless”.
It is for us to figure out what it might be that the child is trying to covey through their “scripts”. Some of them, may be quite obvious to us, some others might not be.

Meaningful Speech- (an entity based in the US) carries out online courses on Natural Language Acquisition for Gestalt Language Processors. They have courses for both Speech Therapists as well as Parents and Special Educators.

I will cite an example of Gestalt Language Processing given in one of their videos. A child, while paying with stickers, during a therapy session kept saying “Oh! The truck has a flat tyre”. On the basis of her previous interactions with the child, the therapist could join the dots and make the connection that what the child meant to say, was that the sticker was “stuck” and she was unable to take it out. The phrase “Oh! The truck has a flat tyre” was from a You Tube video that the child often watched, that showed a truck with a flat tyre, that was “stuck”.
So, while, on the surface, the phrase “Oh! The truck has a flat tyre” may seem “meaningless” and unrelated to the situation at hand, digging a little deeper revealed that the child had used that phrase in a meaningful manner and it was a communication with intent. So, the gestalt (the echolalic phrase), the child used was absolutely perfect, taken in context.

As a parent of an 11 yr old on the Autism Spectrum, who is also quite echolalic, I have realized that learning about Gestalt Language Processing, has been a significant game changer for me, especially in the manner I view his communication, now. Since reading and learning more about it, I have begun to look at all his communication via the lens of GLP and I have realized how much of his valuable communication, I was missing out on, before.

For example, Kabir was taught to express pain through the words “dukhu, dukhu”, “it is hurting”, and point to the throat/ body part that was causing pain. It took us a while to join the dots, but we realized that often when he was scolded, he would say “dukhu dukhu, it is hurting”/”throat is hurting”, when there was no visible distress in his throat. What he meant to say, while using this phrase, was that he was “feeling hurt”, that we scolded him. So he basically learned to generalize that phrase/script and began to use it, to communicate when his feelings were also being hurt ! In another incident, one day Kabir, banged his forehead on the wall. When I asked him why he did that, he said “Slow motion. Accident happened”. There is an episode of Thomas and Friends, where the train meets with an accident, and it says “I cant’t stop! I can’t stop!. Perhaps, what Kabir was trying to say was that, it was an accident, and he could not stop himself from banging his head on the wall.

I, now meticulously maintain a log of all his utterances, and more often than not, he seems to be using the scripts in the correct context. Once we begin to see the potential of echolalic phrases as a means of communication, it changes how we fundamentally view communication.

This was a very brief introduction to Gestalt Language Processing. I will do a more detailed piece on it, later.

For further information and reading, please refer to the following resources: (for courses on GLP)
Northern Speech Services (They have a three Module course on Natural Language Acquisition for Gestalt Language Processors.

It is almost similar to the course available on the website. And they have tons of other courses on Speech and Language)
Book: Natural Language Acquisition on the Autism Spectrum: The Journey from Echolalia to Self-Generated Language by Marge Blanc, M.A., CCC-SLP, 2012 (This book is only available on the Northern Speech Services website).
Author Triveni Goswami Vernal
Triveni Goswami Vernal is an Autism advocate, registered Special Educator (CRR A64010) and an Independent Researcher. Her areas of interest include Autism, Disability Rights, Gender, Art and Northeast studies. She is a mum to an 11 year old on the Autism Spectrum.

Creative representation for this blog is done by our extremely talented CreativeSaathi associate Kabir Vernal. Since the above article talks about Top-Down and Bottom -Up processing, Kabir’s artwork featured in this blog uses the same approachin its creation. Medium used is-
Soft Oil Pastels on Watercolor and Paper-
Postcard Size

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