Have you ever interacted with a child, and you ask them “how was your day?”, and the child repeats what you say? Maybe later you hear them repeating “Old MacDonald had a farm. E-I-E-I-O.” while playing with animal toys. You may be confused as these utterances may sound irrelevant to the questions or context at the moment, but they often have meaning!.
Children who repeat language like this (echolalic) may be gestalt language processors. Echolalia is when someone repeats what others say or what they hear on TV or in a song. There are mainly two types of echolalia – immediate and delayed. Immediate echolalia is when the utterance is repeated immediately after it is said by others. Delayed echolalia can be a child using a phrase they heard hours or days ago, but it may appear out of context.
Gestalt language processors learn language in chunks. Think of it as an assembled Lego set (i.e. a full sentence: I want to go to the park). The child learns about the meaning associated with the Lego set and uses the entire set as a way to communicate earlier in their language development (The child says “I want to go to the park” anytime they want to go outside to do anything, like go to the store or get ice cream). Over time, they learn to take the pieces apart and build them back up to form something new and meaningful (I want to go to the park/I want to go to the store, etc.). They break down language chunks, isolate single words to form more complex sentences!
Gestalt language processing tends to be more commonly found in individuals with Autism. Past research estimated that echolalia is found in 85% of children with Autism. More recent research indicated echolalia might be a defining characteristic in children with Autism in that it occurs in almost all of them who are developing language (Cohn et al, 2022).
Before these children learn to use single words to build complex sentences , echoing what other people say is one of the ways they use to engage in functional communication. We should always keep in mind that it is a valid and powerful communicative means. Different ways of language processing means that different approaches would be used to facilitate language development in therapy and daily routine. So you Speech Language Pathologists and Assistants may incorporate Gestalt-based goals into your child’s therapy to help them develop language with their style of learning. If you have concerns about your child’s language development, contact our team for more information or to book an appointment!
Meaningful speech- echolalia education. Meaningful Speech- Echolalia Education. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://www.meaningfulspeech.com/
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Echolalia and its role in Gestalt language acquisition. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://www.asha.org/practice-portal/clinical-topics/autism/echolalia-and-its-role-in-gestalt-language-acquisition/
Cohn, E. et al (2022). Repeating purposefully: Empowering educators with functional communication of echolalia in Autism. Autism and Developmental Language Impairments.