Let’s CHAT about Hyperlexia: Gestalt Processing

Nov 2, 2020 | Blog

Hello Hyperlexia Family, 

It was challenging to settle on the first topic to discuss in our Hyperlexia Blog series. It’s difficult to prioritize any concepts or terms because each Hyperlexic Learner (HxL) presents uniquely, but we thought we would discuss a term that often comes up toward the beginning of consultations: Gestalt Processing

What is Gestalt Processing? 

In the context of hyperlexia, gestalt processing (sometimes referred to as gestalt philosophy or gestalt psychology) simply refers to learning in chunks. It is “top-down” processing often referred to with the adage, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Research on gestalt processing is ongoing to determine its importance in learning and processing in all individuals. As of now, gestalt processing is thought to be an early stage of the learning process that all learners experience.

What does it have to do with hyperlexia? 

The majority of HxLs that we work with exhibit signs of gestalt processing. We often witness our HxLs repeating entire scripts that they have heard or read. Echolalia, both immediate or delayed, is evidence of gestalt processing; they learned the “chunk” of whatever they are scripting or repeating.   

A helpful example: when a non-gestalt processor hears or reads the sentence, “that is a black cat,” they can recognize five different words with different meanings that work together to create a meaningful sentence. Additionally, a non-gestalt processor is likely able to immediately picture a black cat and recognize where “that” is referring to. However, a gestalt processor may have only learned those five words as a single unit, applying to a single context. A gestalt processor will need explicit support both in breaking down a sentence into its separate parts, as well as applying that sentence across multiple contexts and situations. This type of learning may make it difficult for a non-gestalt learner to make connections using background knowledge without explicit and purposeful support.  

What does this mean for support and prognosis? 

Luckily, gestalt processing often coincides with incredible rote memory in our HxLs. 

  1. We can use gestalt processing abilities to teach and connect: 

We can teach appropriate scripts for so many things: conversations, asking and answering questions, rules and expectations, etc. We can use gestalt processing as a tool to support functional communication. 

  1. We can accept and/or shape delayed echolalia, or “scripting,” as functional and purposeful communication. 

A HxL may attempt to make connections using their inventory of scripts. One of our clients began singing the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” when playing in the sprinklers at school – and we were overjoyed! We need to be flexible and understanding of how and what our HxL may be connecting to in order to encourage this communication.

  1. Provide scripts using first person language so it is appropriate when the HxL repeats it later. 

When writing social stories, writing a schedule, writing down expectations, or supporting requests and expressive language, make sure to be writing in the first person.  For example, write “I will go to speech” instead of “Henry goes to speech.”   

We look forward to hearing your questions and feedback!