Gestalt Language Processing: Natural Language Acquisition in Autism

Gestalt Language Processing (GLP) is a natural way children develop language. GLPs or Gestalt language processors develop speech by starting with whole chunks of language as opposed to single words. This form of natural language acquisition is commonly seen in autistic children as an estimated 75-85% of autistic people are gestalt language processors. Today, Speech-Language Pathologist, Anna Smith, MA, CCC-SLP shares insight into Gestalt Language Processing.

Caucasian little boy wearing a yellow rain hat sitting on a pile of yellow, red, and blue pieces of luggage. He's holding a map and happily speaking into a blown-horn.

LMNOP or “ello-minnow-pea”

Do you remember the first time you realized that “LMNOP” (“elllo-minnow-pea” from the “ABC” song) were individual letters? Or maybe you thought the Elton John song said,

“Hold me closer, Tony Danza” 

when it’s actually

“Hold me closer, tiny dancer.” 

When you hear a song for the first time, are you drawn to the lyrics (words) or the melody? If you can relate to any of these scenarios, this can help you understand gestalt language processing. 

How Do Children Learn to Talk?

Let’s start at the beginning. All babies learn language by picking up on the sounds and speech they hear every day.

Most speech-language therapists are familiar with analytic language development. Additionally, most doctors, parents, and teachers consider this as the “normal” path to language development.

Children who develop language in this way are referred to as Analytic Language Processors or ALPs. These kids are typically easy to understand and use words we can easily recognize.

Analytic Language Development (The Process)

Analytic language development begins with a child saying a single word. Then their language expands as they string more words together. For example,

  • “ball”,
  • “my ball”,
  • “my ball throw”,
  • “I throw(ed) my ball”) 

However, not all children develop language in this linear fashion. Up to 85% of autistic children are believed to be gestalt language processors. Understanding this can greatly improve your autistic child’s overall well-being.

What is Gestalt Language Processing?

Gestalt language development is a natural way of learning language where children initially use chunks of sounds rather than single words. Gestalt means “whole” and refers to “chunks” of language such as phrases, sentences, or songs.

Unfortunately, it’s often misunderstood as “jargon” or “babbling.” However, a child uses jargon or babble, they’re using units of language called “gestalts”.

Gestalt language processors (GLPs) can be difficult for listeners to understand. GLPs can sound like they’re singing, using their own “made-up” language, and commonly use (delayed) echolalia.

Contrary to ALPs, GLPs don’t pick up on single words. Instead, they pick up (and later repeat) combinations of words (i.e. sentences, phrases, song lyrics, etc) they acquire from the world around them. 

Breaking Down Gestalts

In their natural language acquisition journey, Gestalt Language Processors eventually break down gestalts. They then process and learn how to isolate and use single words.

That is where GLP children begin to catch up with ALP peers. GLPs end up at the same place of self-generated language as ALPS, just a little later.

Analytical Language Processing: WordsGestalt Language Processing: Intonation
1.“car”, “bus”“wheelsonthebusgoroundandround”
2.“yellow + car”“thereitgoes” + “busgoesroundandround”
3.“there my” + “car go”“car”, “bus”, “yellow bus”
4.“my yellow bus go (ed) there”“there my” + “car go”
5. “my yellow bus go (ed) there”
*same destination, different journey
In the chart above, you see a comparison of how both ALPs and GLPs make their path to self-generated language. Analytical processors start with words and gestalt language processors start with strings of sounds. In the end, they arrive at the same destination.
"Gestalt Language Processing vs Analytic" in Dark Yellow Text against a dark blue background. Below that there are drawings of two children, both playing with their own yellow toy school buses. Next to one child there is a yellow pyramid with the words, "ALP: Word Babies" above it.  From the bottom of the pyramid up are the following words. "My yellow bus go(ed) there", "there my+ 'car go'", "yellow + car", and at the top, "car" and "bus". At the bottom there is a dual trapezoid shape with the following 5 phrases, "wheelsonthebusgoroundandround", "'thereitgoes' + 'busgoesroundandround'", "car", "bus", "yellow bus", "there my" + "car go", and lastly, "my yellow bus go(ed) there".

Identifying Gestalt Language Processing in Kids

As a listener, we have to pay very close attention to GLPs or we might miss what they are saying. As mentioned, GLPs’ speech can be hard to understand.

Your child might be a GLP if they:

  • Hum or sound as if they’re singing,
  • Engage in echolalia or scripting
    • Repeat phrases, sentences, or other strings of words that they hear from others,
  • Their speech is not understood.

Does Your Child Watch the Same Shows Over and Over Again?

Many autistic and GLP children enjoy watching videos on their tablets. They replay the same scenes (or songs) over and over again. Then, you might hear them later verbally repeat the video they were watching.

Repeating lines from shows (sometimes called delayed echolalia) is using gestalts. The child uses these gestalts (movie lines, for example) to practice language. With the right support, these scripts will eventually be broken down into individual words to be later mixed and matched into self-generated language.

Echolalia is not meaningless. It’s an essential component of learning language in autistic children and neurotypical children who are GLPs.

Young smiling African-American boy wearing headphones while lying in bed watching a show on his tablet.

Traditional Speech Therapy Can Hurt GLPs

If your child is speech delayed, it’s important to know whether or not your child is an analytic processor or a gestalt language processor.

Traditional speech therapy is often helpful to an analytic language-processing child. However, that same approach can prevent a Gestalt Language Processor from progressing in their language development.

When a child has been in speech therapy and isn’t making progress, we should look to see if the therapy approach matches their language learning style.

If we treat a GLP child using a traditional speech therapy approach, we hold them back. Traditional speech therapy approaches cause the GLP child to get “stuck” with a bunch of single words. They, therefore, aren’t able to move on to the later stages of language development.

Remember, most autistic children are gestalt language processors. As such, we need to support them with what they need to thrive.

SLPs and Parents Need to Know Gestalt Language Processing

Fortunately, more Speech-Language Pathologists are learning to identify GLPs. With that, they’re recognizing that therapy needs to be catered to the learning style of the child.

Our field is lucky to have observational data obtained from Marge Blanc at the Communication Development Center. She’s leading the way to make sure therapists, teachers, parents, and caregivers are informed on Gestalt Language development.

"Supporting Gestalt Language Processors" in black text above a yellow emoji face with its finger covering its lips to indicate to "be quiet". To the left is a red circle crossing off the following questions written in black text: "What's this? What's that? Whatcha doing? Who is this?"

What Can I Do to Help My Gestalt Language Processor?

If you suspect your child is a GLP, acknowledge their gestalts. Yes, acknowledge their language even if you have no clue what it means. Here are a few ways to do this.

  • Nod your head,
  • Smile,
  • Say, “Yeah” or repeat back what they said

Also, step back, be quiet, and listen to your child’s spontaneous language.

Stop Asking Questions

Avoid asking questions. Questions are demands and when we ask a child questions it requires the child to respond to an adult’s request. This can prevent a child from expressing what they want to say and how they want to say it. Ultimately, this can stifle their natural development of language.

Listen and Be Curious

Here’s another essential way to support Gestalt Language Processing kiddo. Listen, be curious, and lead with connection.

Recap: Gestalt Language Processing

Because the majority of autistic children develop language Gestalt Language Processing, it’s vital to support them correctly.

Then seek out the support of a neurodiversity-affirming Speech-language pathologist with experience in Gestalt Language Processing. Here is a growing directory of Natural Language Acquisition (Gestalt Language Processing) trained speech therapists.

Photo of a Caucasian woman wearing a jean jacket over a black and white flowered shirt. She's smiling while facing the camera and has tortiose-shell glasses on.  Her hair is light brown and shoulder-length.

Anna Smith, M.A., CCC-SLP is a registered Speech-Language Pathologist. She’s the clinical director at Kidspeak, a Charlotte, NC speech therapy clinic. She’s received training on Gestalt Language development through Meaningful Speech. Anna is a neurodiversity-affirming provider for individuals on the Autism Spectrum. She loves to share her knowledge with others, and you find her at

Gestalt Language Processing References

  • The Units of Language Acquisition (1983), Peters, Ann, et al.
  • Language Acquisition and Communicative Behavior in Autism: Toward an Understanding of the ‘Whole’ of It” (1983), Prizant, Barry et al.
  • Natural Language Acquisition on the Autism Spectrum: The Journey from Echolalia to Self-Generated Language (2012), Blanc, Marge.

Disclaimer on Language:

At A Heart for All Students, we have a strengths-based lens and our language reflects this. According to a 2020 study, the majority consensus among the autistic community is a preference for identity-first language such as:

  • Autistic or
  • autistic person

Because of this, terms such as “person with autism”, and “autism spectrum disorder (ASD)” will not be used here.

"Gestalt Language Processing in Autism" in dark blue text. A woman wearing a blue shirt smiles while bending down to engage a young child. The child is playing at a table.

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