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In recent years, myself and David have regularly connected over our shared interest in neurodivergent and disability-informed practice in early childhood. Both disillusioned by the fact that most of our early childhood documents describe typically developing children, we have become increasingly fascinated by ideas, concepts and theories that offer us a renewed way of understanding developmental diversity. We first became aware of Gestalt Language Processing (GLP) via the social media accounts of several American Speech Pathologists, in particular that echolalia was a valid and meaningful form of communication.
We both exchanged experiences where we had been advised that echolalia had little meaning, and should be ignored. We considered the implications of this on the echolalic children we had both cared for and educated, and felt frustrated that we did not have access to this knowledge.
Speech and Language Therapy (SaLT), even more so than early childhood education, has been dominated by a medical and deficit model of neurodevelopmental and linguistic difference. This means that much of the support given to children is focused on “fixing” their perceived delays to get them back on track so they develop and learn like their typically developing peers.
It seems, however that in both fields, this approach is changing. And so, we want to provide an insight into GLP outside of a clinical setting, and to raise awareness that echolalia counts in child development.
Echolalia is an unexpected treasure hunt… it is full of echoing, referencing, scripting, riffing and rifting, storing and combining and recombining, patterning, quoting, punning, swinging from hyperlexic memory to synesthetic connection, words are my tangible playground.
Just Stimming, 2023
You could pretty much guarantee that most early years educators have heard at least one child communicating via echolalia. Echolalia is defined as “the repetition of words, phrases, songs or other more elaborate dialogues uttered by another person which may be immediate or delayed.” (International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision; Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Ed).
Perhaps the most obvious example of echolalia might include a child at pick-up time responding to their parent’s prompt: “Say goodbye Cleo!” with a “Say goodbye Cleo!” of their own. They also might interject bits from their favourite TV shows, songs or phrases they have heard from adults; often in a way that does not seem to make sense in the context of the moment. Others might seem to babble in a sing-songy way, or you might notice they adopt a particular accent.
We often feel a range of responses when hearing children communicate in “unusual” ways. Some might be puzzled yet endeared by the familiar sounds of a phrase within their settings. Others might feel frustrated by the lack of conversational turn-taking that often emerges in a child’s earliest years.
Whilst we might not always know why a child is, say, repeating a favourite phrase from Peppa Pig when they are putting on their jackets to go outside, we can often pick up on the distinct inflection or tone of voice that comes with echolalia. Educators can find themselves feeling equal parts uncertain and charmed when they think about echolalic children in their settings and the usual inclination is to think, “How do I fix this? They are so lovely but why do they speak this way? How can I best connect with and support them?”
If we are being honest, we might often wonder, “How do I get them to communicate normally?”
Based on prior research and study, there is a growing movement within speech therapy that is helping us to unpick why children communicate in this way and how we can best support them. The research behind Gestalt Language Processing (GLP) shines a light on what is actually going on with our echolalic children, although it is important to note that this is an emerging area of research that has been somewhat neglected by mainstream Speech and Language Therapy.
It turns out that most autistic children - and some non-autistic children as well - pick up language in a different way that includes a number of stages. Most commonly what we see are “gestalts”, meaning “whole.”
Children who are gestalt language processors (GLPs) pick up and use language in “whole” chunks or scripts. It is their repeated use of these gestalts that then gets labelled as echolalia. They may use this in immediate ways - for example, repeating straight away - or delayed echolalia, in which their gestalts are used across space and time. Marge Blanc, a speech therapist in the US is widely credited with implementing this research, often to great success.
Almost all of us are taught that children pick up language on a word-by-word basis. It can be tempting to see this as not only the “normal” way of learning to speak but maybe even the only way.
Spoiler alert: it is not!
If most children (what these speech therapists describe as analytic language processors) have a language journey that looks something like this:
Dog -> Dog barking -> I hear a dog barking
Young gestalt language processors might start their language journey by saying “What a nice dog!” every time they see a dog, as they heard a family member exclaim this one day.
There is a growing field of research that shows that gestalt language processors are really able to “get to the same place” as “typical” or analytic language processors, they just have a different path to follow.
Unfortunately, most of us are still taught or advised to try to force these children onto the path we are more used to. It is not uncommon for early years educators to be told to ignore echolalia, to add a word to a child’s phrase, or dull down our own communication with them as if they had the receptive understanding of a younger child.
Often this looks like us educators focusing on “functional speech” or using the visual communication system PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) in a needlessly controlling and cumbersome way. For example, only meeting a child’s request upon exchange of a visual (imagine if adults placed such conditions on each other during exchanges!).
“Lunch now, then play.”
“Thirsty?” asking a child if they want a drink.
“If you want to play with the car, show me the car visual. Where is the car? Can you give me the car visual?”
In short - much of our current strategy advice for GLPs is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Both of us have experienced the disappointment when a child has not made progress as a result of our mismatched approaches. And we are increasingly having conversations with other early educators who want and need access to approaches that are more attuned to linguistic diversity.
In fact, it is typically older GLP children who get most “stuck” in their speech as they have racked up more time with our “traditional,” well-meaning but greatly mismatched approaches. They might have a toolbox of functional phrases but in the words of Marge Blanc, “We have failed to consider that the functional phrases we have taught might actually interfere with [their] potential to develop language competence.”
(Natural Language Acquisition on the Autism Spectrum, Marge Blanc. Page 8 published in 2012)
Gestalt language processing is not a disorder, nor is it a diagnosis. It does not need to be fixed or cured - it simply needs to be understood.
Again, gestalt language processors can and do absolutely “get to the same place” as analytic language processors but only if speech therapists, educators and other adults are willing to un-learn many things we have been taught or assumed about all children’s language development. It is simply a different way of acquiring language and should not become another term that is used to pathologise those who communicate differently.
We are hoping through these articles, that we can draw upon the expertise of others to shine the light on GLP much brighter.
This article was co-written by David Cahn and Kerry Murphy. We have backgrounds in early childhood education and identify as neurodivergent. We are keen to broaden understanding of GLP across different contexts, and we also recognise that this must be done through an intersectional lens that recognises speech, language and communication development as influenced by a range of environmental factors and experiences.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.