Helping Patients with Aphasia Connect to the Outside World

speech therapy for aphasia

Aphasia is a language disorder that affects a patient’s production and comprehension of language. It is frequently caused by a stroke or a traumatic brain injury. Because the language center of the brain is affected, patients will often struggle with speech, reading, writing, mathematics and many may even lose the ability to understand or participate in a conversation.

Typically, this loss of language happens suddenly. Patients may find themselves unable to send a text, read an email or have a conversation with their loved ones. As with many conditions, there are different levels of severity with aphasia. With mild aphasia, patients still maintain the ability to speak but may struggle to find words. With moderate to severe aphasia, patients may not be able to speak at all and may lose their ability to communicate through normal means.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) lists the signs of aphasia as:

●     Saying the wrong word. Patients may say “fish” instead of “chicken.”

●     Switching sounds in words. For example, saying “wish dasher” instead of “dishwasher.”

●     Using made-up words.

●     Having difficulty with sentences.

●     Not understanding what others are saying.

●     Unable to read.

●     Loss of the ability to spell or write sentences.

●     Loss of the ability to use numbers. For example, telling time, counting money, and adding and subtracting may become difficult or impossible.

Speech Therapy Can Help Patients with Aphasia Overcome Their Challenges

Today, around 2 million people are living with aphasia in the United States. And while some patients can recover over weeks or years, aphasia is often a chronic condition. One of the biggest challenges that patients face is social isolation. Having lost their ability to have a conversation in a conventional way, persons with aphasia and many others with language disorders can find themselves feeling alone, depressed and disconnected from the world.

Speech therapy offers persons with aphasia hope for recovery. Melinda Corwin, Ph.D., a professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences, says there are a variety of methods that focus on helping patients with language impairments reconnect with their world.

“There's a whole list of techniques that speech-language pathologists use to help patients try to recover some of their language skills. For most people, aphasia is a chronic condition that won't ever fully go away, but there are methods and strategies that we use to help people resume their participation in life. We call this the Life Participation Approach to Aphasia or LPAA,” explains Corwin.

Using the LPAA approach, speech-language pathologists provide patients with the communication tools needed to get their message across and to understand others around them. Corwin explains that LPAA is a social approach, involving both the patients and their caregivers, as well as the patient’s environment. “It's about partner training and teaching the partner how to build a communication ramp and use the tools as much as it is about the person with aphasia. We want to structure the environment to make it as conducive to communication as possible,” says Corwin.

Helping Patients with Aphasia Reconnect With Their World

The first step to connecting with patients who have lost ability or struggle with language is to find alternative forms of communication. These may include pictures, symbols, facial expressions and tone of voice. “Those are things that can still be processed, usually in the right hemisphere of the brain, which is undamaged with aphasia. We are tapping into these areas of the brain as a way to get information in,” explains Corwin.

Many patients struggle to understand complex reading such as paragraphs or medical forms, but through the use of keywords, short phrases, and time, many patients are still able to process information. These tools can help them on their way to building their own “communication ramp.”

Developments in the Field

Through LPAA and other speech therapy tools, the medical field has come to better understand how to help patients reconnect with their world. There has been a shift in the way the larger medical community views aphasia patients. It is no longer about getting aphasia patients to return to traditional methods of communication. Instead, therapy focuses on enabling patients to work with their remaining strengths.

“In the past, aphasia patients were being sent home with no way to communicate with their family members. It would be analogous to being sent home without a wheelchair if you couldn't walk. I think one of the most important developments in caring for these patients is the push for using the LPAA from day one,” states Corwin.

Corwin says she has been greatly inspired by the patients with aphasia with whom she works. “They have taught me a lot about how I can help someone who knows more than they can say. I am realizing how important it is to me that we work on overall patient-provider communication from day one of diagnosis and throughout the patient’s lifespan.”

If you would like to learn more about TTUHSC’s Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology program, please visit the program page. You can also email the SHP Office of Admissions and Student Affairs at health.professions@ttuhsc.edu or call 806-743-3220 to learn more.

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