Defining Echolalia and Gestalt Language Development

I want to share some information about what echolalia and gestalt language development are. I first became interested in the topic when I took Dr. Lillian Stiegler’s “A Language-Based Approach to Managing Echolalia” course. That lead me to Amythest Schaeber’s YouTube video about echolalia from her “Ask an Autistic” series. This lead me to read the book “Life, Animated” by Ron Suskind.

What does the word gestalt mean?
It originated in psychology, and the dictionary definition is “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.”

What is gestalt language development?
Typically developing children are analytic processors, this means their units are at the word level. Sometimes autistic children may have echolalia because they are gestalt processors, and their units are longer (ex: phrase or sentence) and frequently tonal (ex: sing-songy). 

Types of echolalia:

  • Immediate: The person repeats a word or phrase they heard immediately after hearing it.
  • Delayed: The person repeats a word or phrase they heard some time after they heard it. This time could range greatly. For example, if someone watched a movie and saw a character say, “Thank you so much!” when they were happy. When the person is asked, “How are you?” the next day by the teacher, they might respond, “Thank you so much!” to express that they are feeling happy.
  • Pure: The person repeats the exact same phrase or sentence, word-for-word.  For example, if they hear “I want to go to the game,” on TV, they will say “I want to go to the game.” If their Mom asks, “Do you want juice?” They will repeat, “Do you want juice?” 
  • Mitigated: The person repeats but modifies the phrase or sentence. For example, if they hear on TV, “I am so surprised by the car!,” They might say, “I am so surprised by the play-doh!” Mom says, “Let’s go to the park!” They might say, “Let’s go to the store!”

Communication Functions of Echolalia:
Just like each word serves some purpose for communication in typically developing language, each phrase and sentence can also serve some purpose for communication in echolalia. Here are some examples:

  • Interaction : Let you know they’re listening to you
  • Attempts to request, express feelings, comment on situations, ask questions, answer questions, etc.
  • Giving themselves extra time to process what a person said before they can respond

 There are also some additional functions of echolalia.

  • Self Regulation:  Most people have something from all 5 senses -see, touch, hear, taste, smell- that helps us feel good when we’re stressed out. Echolalia may be one way that an autistic person helps themselves to relax and calm down.
  • Having fun: Sometimes you love a word or phrase so much you just wanna say it! Echolalia is can be a way for autistic people to have fun. Some neurotypical people might see it as “talking to yourself.” But I see it as similar to when you quote your favorite movie at a party!
  • Trying to remember something: Again, some neurotypical people might see it as “talking to yourself.” But, I think most of us can understand having to repeat something over and over again in some way as a reminder to yourself. For example, I have to tell myself, “keys, phone, wallet.”  

This topic is really interesting to me because I learned from Dr. Stiegler that echolalia has a consistent pattern of gestalt language development. This means that autistic people with echolalia may have a different way of processing language, but there is an intentional purpose in what they’re saying. It’s not just random. They just have a different approach and understanding of language.

Owner and Speech Language Pathologist
Primary Bilingual Therapies

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