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This year was my first year to attend our 2017 ASHA convention in Los Angeles.  While I had been able to attend the Texas conventions in the past (looking forward to CSHA next year), I hadn’t been able to go to ASHA.  So let us just say I was like a kid in a candy store.  I was SO EXCITED!  That was even before I went into the exhibition hall (I think I heard the Halleluiah chorus in the background).

While the exhibit hall was amazing and I spent some $$$.  I also went to some amazing sessions.  Over the next few months, my goal is to share some of these with you.  First I wanted to share one of the “light bulb” moments during my time at #ASHA17.  The session was called “ECHOLALIA and GESTALT Language Processing in Children:  It’s Not Just About Autism.”

While I was working back in Frisco, TX, I had this amazing and loving young student called “Sara”.  Sara was an amazing and cheerful kindergartner that had quite a few words, but minimal language.  She used echolalia and phrases that didn’t always make sense in the context.  She came into my therapy room every day,  sat down smiling,  and asked me: “What is your name?”.  After weeks of this, I said: “Sara, you know my name is Ms. Archer”.  She smiled and nodded.  I had started to realize that she was using “What is your name” as a general greeting.  She knew my name but used “What is your name?” because she didn’t have the language for a different greeting.  She wanted to start a communication exchange but didn’t have the language.  While meeting with her father that week, I brought this up and he shared similar comments or sayings.  She used these phrases to communicate but they did not necessarily have the meaning that we might typically attribute to them.  One of the sessions I attended was about the use of echolalia and “gestalt” language in communication development.  This reminded me of Sara and so many of my students.  It opened my eyes to and ears to listen and look for the possible meaning and function behind the echolalia.

Using echolalia to build language

This quote from the session was a light bulb moment, “We all quote or echo sayings, quotes, lines in plays, things that are stored whole and not generated from scratch each time they are needed.  Echoing isn’t a bad thing”.    You can read more about their study and the research on the role of echolalia in language development.  Below are some of the takeaways.

Children develop language through analytic and/or gestalt processing.  Some children are more analytical and their language is composed of separate words.  While others process and learn language in larger units.  The strings are called gestalts.  Some examples of gestalts are:  look at that, open the door, etc.  So children and adults use a combination of analytic and gestalt processing.

While we often associate this with Autism, Gestalt or echolalic utterances are not specific to Autism.  The presenters shared research that discussing how gestalt processing of language is related more to deficits in language development and can appear with language delay/disorders, not just autism.

So we all use gestalt or echoic statements, so some of the units that our children (or adults) use are functional, but for many, they are not.

So what do we do?  First, we determine if the statements are gestalts or single unit based.  Then we work to break down gestalts into units.  The Communication Development Center has resources that go into greater depth on this topic.  They also share strategies and research for implementing with your own students/clients.

My student, Sara, was a gestalt language processor.  We were able to use her gestalts as a tool for learning language.  When last I saw Sara, she was asking and answering questions and building her language skills.  When last we spoke she said, “Bye Ms. Archer, have a good summer”.  While she was using a gestalt phrase, that we often use at the end of the year, she was developing language to communicate more functionally with her world!