Understanding Aphasia

Aphasia is an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write. Because language plays such a central role in our daily lives, aphasia can be very challenging. The diagnosis of aphasia does NOT imply a person has a mental illness or impairment in intelligence. Once the cause has been identified, the main treatment for aphasia is Speech and Language Therapy. The person with aphasia practices language skills and learns to use other ways to communicate. Family members often participate in the rehabilitation process.

Most common cause of aphasia is Stroke (about 25-40% of stroke survivors develop aphasia). It can also result from head injury, brain tumor or other neurological causes. While aphasia is most common among older people, it can occur in people of all ages, races, nationalities and gender.

A person with aphasia may:

  • Speak in short or incomplete sentences
  • Speak in sentences that don’t make sense
  • Say unrecognizable words
  • Trouble understanding what others are saying
  • Difficulty recalling some words
  • Problems with reading or writing

The severity and scope of the problems depend on the extent of damage and the area of the brain. Aphasia usually develops due to damage on the left side of the brain, which controls movements on the right side of the body. Therefore; many people with aphasia also have weakness or paralysis of their right leg and right arm.

Not all patients with aphasia are alike; some people have difficulty speaking; while others may struggle to follow a conversation. In some people, aphasia is fairly mild and you might not notice it right away. In other cases, it can be very severe, affecting speaking, writing, reading, and listening. While specific symptoms can vary greatly. What all people with aphasia have in common are difficulties in communicating.

Is Improvement Possible?

Rehabilitation starts with a good Speech Language Pathologist (SLP). These professionals understand the challenges of trying to understand someone with a language disorder and they can provide functional tips and techniques for family members on how best to communicate with their loved one. Learning these new ways to facilitate functional communication from an SLP will help your loved one begin to face life with aphasia.

How successful the rehabilitation will be differs from person to person, while some might recover completely others might regain only some of their communication skills. Even if aphasia persists, it does not mean a person is unable to live an independent and meaningful life.

Evidence suggests speech and language therapy is more effective if it’s started as soon as possible. For many people, the most obvious recovery happens in the first six months. However; improvements can continue to be seen for much longer after this, even many years later.

Communication Strategies: Some Dos and Don’ts

The impact of aphasia on relationships may be profound. No two people with aphasia are alike with respect to severity, former speech and language skills, or personality. But in all cases it is essential for the person to communicate as successfully as possible from the very beginning of the recovery process. Here are some suggestions to help communicate with a person with aphasia:

  • Make sure you have the person’s attention before you start.
  • Minimize or eliminate background noise (TV, radio, other people).
  • Keep your own voice at a normal level, unless the person has indicated otherwise.
  • Keep communication simple, but adult. Simplify your own sentence structure and reduce your rate of speech. Emphasize key words. Don’t “talk down” to the person with aphasia.
  • Give them time to speak. Resist the urge to finish sentences or offer words.
  • Communicate with drawings, gestures, writing and facial expressions in addition to speech.
  • Confirm that you are communicating successfully with “yes” and “no” questions.
  • Praise all attempts to speak and downplay any errors. Avoid insisting that that each word be produced perfectly.

Engage in normal activities whenever possible. Do not shield people with aphasia from family or ignore them in a group conversation. Rather, try to involve them in family decision-making as much as possible. Keep them informed of events but avoid burdening them with day to day details.

Encourage independence and avoid being overprotective.

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