The Early Days
Cece was born at 36 weeks. As an infant she was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition, and by 9 months old, we learned she also had a significant visual impairment.
As a baby, she loved to be held, and was most content when she was with me, her Mama. Early on, we noticed we had to work really hard to get big smiles from her, and as the year went on, she wasn’t picking up gestures, like waving or pointing.
After we celebrated her first birthday, we began to notice that she wasn’t speaking the way our older daughter did at the same age. At 16 months, she had a handful of single words – “mama,” “dada,” etc. We noticed she would repeat the words when someone said them, but she did not use them spontaneously. The only word combination she had, “Thank you,” disappeared within a few months of her learning it.
We took her for a private speech evaluation, and she was diagnosed with an expressive language disorder. Cece started bi-weekly speech therapy.
Over the next 6-9 months, Cece began using single words, often for labeling. She excelled at naming colors and shapes (see first video) but didn’t use these words to describe other items. For example, she wouldn’t say “red car.”
She would have periods where it sounded like she was trying to speak with us in long phrases, but we could not make out a single word. She would often get frustrated in these situations.
By 18 months, we started noticing she was singing songs, or repeating phrases we had said, but she still had trouble communicating with us. (see video 2)
As her second birthday approached, we started hearing short phrases – “What is it?,” “Come here,” “Are you?” (asking where we were), “Help you (asking for help).” She had also gained several single words, mostly nouns.
Learning About Gestalt Language Processors and Natural Language Acquisition
In February of 2021, Cece’s provider changed with Early Intervention. I started telling her about Cece’s language, and she mentioned something about gestalt language. I had never heard of it before, and being eager to learn more, I searched high and low for information.
It was at this time that I found the Meaningful Speech page on Instagram, and subsequently found out about all of Marge Blanc’s work on Gestalt Language Processing and Natural Language Acquisition. The information resonated with me, as it seemed to describe Cece’s language in a way I’d never seen before!. I read everything and anything I could get my hands on, and I was constantly searching for videos, as I tried to determine if my Cece was a GLP.
This was in the beginning of the COVID pandemic, which meant all of Cece’s services were virtual, and we were between speech therapists. I went back and forth about whether or not Cece was a GLP, because unlike some of the children I’d read about, Cece typically used scripts that were contextually appropriate. Cece was, and still is, a very savvy scripter! In fact, I think that is why it took me so long to figure out how often she was using scripts.
I decided to start following the NLA framework, detailed in Marge Blanc’s book, with Cece at home. Within a few weeks we were seeing amazing changes in Cece! I think the biggest change was her level of engagement and eye contact! I remember the day her Occupational Therapist mentioned how much more engaged Cece seemed! I wanted to cry, as it confirmed this wasn’t just a figment of my imagination.
Where we started…
After learning about NLA, I decided to start recording language samples at home to help me determine which stage Cece was in. This first clip is a video taken in February 2021. In it, you can hear her repeatedly saying, “Mom, come on, this will be fun!” This a gestalt, and this was very typical of her language at this time.
The second video, taken in April is the first time I recorded a language sample. You can hear a lot of language, and most of it sounds pretty appropriate contextually, but that’s because the scripts were taken from things me or her older sister (4 at the time) had said.
One of the biggest challenges we experienced was people saying her language was “fine,” because she would use some complex sentences (they were gestalts!). I repeatedly explained that these were memorized lines, but lots of people, including professionals, didn’t really seem to understand. It wasn’t until people were around Cece for long periods of time that they would notice the repetition with her language, and how she could use a complex sentence, but then struggled to answer a simple question.
Moving from Stage 1 to 2
Cece’s initial language samples showed that she was primarily in Stage 1 (45%) and Stage 2 (42%).
Over the next few months, our focus was on modeling mitigable phrases, and being intentional about it, as we engaged in preferred activities with her. I tried to avoid questions, but this was REALLY hard for me!
I took several language samples over the next few months, and we were able to see her clearly mitigating some of her original gestalts. I’ll share a few examples below:
- “Look at the water, it’s pretty!” —> “look, there’s water!” “look at that!”
- “The battery is dead.” —> “The battery not working” “where’s the battery?”
- “what you doing?” —> “what you playing?”
- “Where’s Daddy?” —> “where’s my shoes?” “Where’s my friend” “Where you going?”
- “It’s getting red” —> “it’s getting hot,” “It’s a baby,” “It’s me, Cece!” “It’s stuck on my finger”
As Cece’s language progressed and she was solidly in stage 2, we still heard a lot of gestalts, but she was also making attempts to converse with us more. She went to summer camp, and I remember her coming home and saying, “I colored. Mom and Dad are going to love it!” as she handed her Dad the coloring page. This was clearly something the teachers had said to her, but we loved that she was telling us about her day!
Stage 3 wasn’t as easy to identify for me as the previous stages, and I think it was a short stage for us. During this time, we started to hear her using words much more flexibly!
She also started telling us about past events, which was amazing! For the first time, we were able to hear her perspective on past experiences. She remembered so many details! It was almost like she was watching a move of the experience in her head as she described it. This confirmed something we’d already suspected, she had a phenomenal memory!
Stage 4 was when Cece’s language and communication really exploded! It felt like a switch flipped and she was suddenly using a ton of novel language!
She often used the incorrect tenses and her sentences were choppy, but hearing her piecing together her own phrases was music to our ears!
During this time she started to talk about emotions, and past events. We also started hearing questions!
One thing that surprised me, was the way she continued to use her gestalts, and even acquired new ones. I now know this is something she’ll probably always do, but at the time I thought she would drop the gestalts once she started forming her own phrases.
Here’s some snippets I jotted down during this time:
- “The baby is in love. Love is in the air!” – When she met her new baby sister! The second line is a gestalt from one of her favorite shows, Masha and the Bear.
- “My Julia. I don’t get to.” – Trying to tell me she didn’t get a chance to hold the baby. Cece would often leave the last word off of a sentence.
- “when I was still in my school, your car disappeared. You disappeared. Then you came back” – explaining how I left after drop off but returned to pick her up.
- “Me would be mad.”
- “What did breakfast have donuts? Why did we have donuts for breakfast?“
- “I think my bones like that dance move.”
- “Can you dance me?”
- “What it was from?”
- “She did the Sarah birthday party without.” – She was trying to tell me a classmate missed Sarah’s birthday party.
The later stages have been full of excitement for us! Cece can tell us so much more than she could in the past, and while there are still challenges, her increased language allows her to explain her thoughts and feelings in a way that was never possible before.
As Cece’s language has expanded, one area we’ve seen a lot of growth in is her ability to tell us her feelings, while also helping us understand why she feels the way she does. In the past, Cece would have periods of high frustration, which often resulted in a lot of yelling. While our house is still pretty loud sometimes (we have 3 active kiddos), we don’t have to do as much guesswork as we did in the past, because she can help us understand what she is experiencing. This has been particularly helpful when it comes to sensory experiences, school avoidance, and anxiety about new experiences. We can now talk about these things on a level we couldn’t do before, which has helped us understand her better and become even better advocates for her.
Stages 5 & 6
Observations in the later stages:
- Cece started using conjunctions and forming more intricate sentences and thoughts.
- She’s asking increasingly complex questions
- She can provide simple narratives
- We’ve watched her sense of humor blossom and it has been so much fun!
- We still see a decent amount of grammatical errors, especially with tenses and conjugations, but this is slowly improving, and it is a constant reminder that she’s using more novel language!
- Questions are much more prevalent, though “how” and “why” are not as common as the others.
- We still hear gestalts! She can now tell us where they come from (most of the time), and we all enjoying reciting some of her favorites at home!
- When talking about a preferred topic, she can be extremely chatty! During these times, her grammar isn’t quite as good, but I think it’s because she’s so focused on the content of what she is saying.
Quotes from the Later Stages
Observations in the later stages:
- “I don’t either” – in relation to not liking something
- “I’m glad for you to come.” – said to her uncle after she hadn’t seen him in a long time. I told her, “that was a nice thing to say!.” Her response, “That’s because I very love him.”
- “They were my best teachers. We can go visit and tell the office we’re here. I’ll say, thank you for visiting!” – talking about her PreK teachers after the end of the school year.
- “Ummm, um, let me think. I like a little of the Chip N Dale movie. (long pause). I like the new Mario movie because I like the Peaches song.” –when her sister asked her what her favorite movie was.
- “My tummy is mad when Jessie is screaming. When Jessie is screaming it makes me cover my ears. It’s too loud.”
- “The girl was so great to me. I liked her!”
- “I have my invisible tablet in bed. Don’t be mad, Mom.”
- “I tried to eat my lunch but I didn’t like the green vegetable straws.”
Where Cece is today!
Over the past 2.5 years, Cece’s language has consistently improved! It has been absolutely amazing watching her progress through the stages!
Cece just finished Pre-K and her language continues to improve and progress, as does her confidence and ability to express herself.
NLA has changed our lives in the best way possible. This approach has improved Cece’s communication, while also treating her with love and respect. We are incredibly grateful for all we have learned throughout this process and we look forward to seeing how Cece’s language continues to grow and expand in the years that come!