top of page

Something to Gestalt About

Having a child who cannot communicate effectively is challenging.

I knew this, in theory, when I was a speech pathologist working with families. I would listen to their frustrations around their child's language skills: It was so hard to know what their child wanted, it was so hard to understand them, it was so so hard to avoid the tantrums and meltdowns.

And then I had my own child.

Empathy and imagination could never have prepared me for the feelings I had around my son's communication. As someone educated on communication, I was always looking to see if my son would meet the next milestone. But then came the guilt and the shame and the burn-out as I spent so much of time as a stay-at-home mom trying to "fix" the problem.

I was confused and worried and so god-damn annoyed that nothing was working. Me -- a speech-language pathologist -- couldn't get my own child to talk.

And didn't we always say that the parent is the one who can make the most change for little ones? Speech therapists only see a child an hour or so a week. But a parent ... they see their child all the time.

So why wasn't anything working? (Hint: it has something to do with gestalts …)

Growing Up Bastian

Bastian was a COVID baby. At 8 months old, we went into quarantine, and Bastian began to have limited language opportunities beyond the home environment. We went to the park and walked outside, but his contexts were limited and so were his communication partners. It is impossible to know how much of his delay was due to Covid. I believe some of it was. But I also know he had a delay beyond just Covid.

Bastian rarely babbled as a baby. Sure, he hit the milestones -- he did babble sometimes. But not frequently. Not enough.

He would listen to music constantly, moving his body in time with the beat, bouncing his little tiny booty and swinging his arms around. His second word -- and first sign -- was music at 16 months. But while he was listening to music ...

He was silent. No babbling, no singing, no humming.

Bastian would play with toys occasionally: banging blocks, putting felt baskets on his head, reading books ...

And he was quiet. Maybe a cry or a laugh. But no babbling.

Looking back on it now, these were the signs of a delay. And they were likely NOT related to Covid. These were things that babies typically do even with limited contexts and limited communication partners.

Eventually, Bastian began to do more. He began to sing along to songs and use jargon while reading. (Note: jargon has the musical tone of real language while being made up of indecipherable sounds.) It took him longer to get there, but I began to see the signs that he was ready for more communication beyond a few single words and signs.

But still, nothing happened. No more words!

It wasn't until later –almost a year later – that I found out why.

Top Down Bottom Up

My son is a gestalt language learner.

Have you heard of gestalt language yet? In the speech language world, gestalt language is the new big thing. Except, it isn't new at all. It is a type of language acquisition that was discovered and researched in the 1970s but then got pushed to the side as the field moved in different directions. Now, SLPs are returning to this research with new research of their own -- because this way of learning language is essential for understanding autistic children and many other late talkers.

Language Acquisition

Most people think of language acquisition from the bottom-up -- sounds becom