Understanding aphasia: 10 tips for improving communication

Posted by Jody Englert, C.C.C.S.L.P.
December 26, 2013

Jody Englert SLPImagine being dropped off in a country where you speak very little of the native language, and as long as the native speakers speak slowly, you only understand bits and pieces. This is very similar to how someone with aphasia may feel every day. Aphasia is an impairment of language, which may affect ability for somebody to speak, understand spoken language, read, write, use numbers and do calculations or use non-verbal gestures. It occurs after an injury to the brain, most commonly a stroke; however, it can also occur after traumatic brain injury, brain tumors or any other incident affecting the brain.

Symptoms and treatment outlook
Aphasia symptoms can be mild to severe, with each person presenting a unique set of weaknesses relating to communication. Mild forms of aphasia may include only occasional word finding difficulties. But it can be as severe as a complete loss of ability to speak or understand spoken and written words.

The most commonly asked question I hear from family members is: “When will this be better?” Statistically, research suggests the largest recovery will occur within the first four to six months following injury. However, improvements to communication can continue for years. 

A speech-language pathologist (SLP) trained in treatment of aphasia and related disorders can help facilitate recovery. According to the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA), position papers report clinical evidence declaring that individuals who receive services from qualified SLPs benefit in both quality and quantity of language recovery. Therapy may focus on recovery of abilities, compensatory strategies or a combination of both. Either way, the main goal of therapy is to improve the quality and efficiency of communication.

Tips to facilitate success
An aphasia diagnosis affects not only the patient, but their entire family. When communicating with a loved one diagnosed with aphasia, it is important to set them up for success. Here are 10 tips for improving communication with aphasic individuals:

  • Continue to treat the aphasic patient as the mature adult that he or she is.
  • Reduce background noise (radio, other conversations, etc.).
  • Reduce visual distractions (TV, movement).
  • Be sure you have the person’s attention prior to speaking.
  • Keep messages short and simple. Speak slowly but naturally. Speaking louder does not increase understanding.
  • Give your loved one plenty of time to respond and try not to answer for them. 
  • Use of gestures, facial cues and voice intonation will help the person understand the message, even if they do not understand the words.
  • Your loved one may sometimes respond with head nods and social niceties when he or she may not really understand. Do not assume comprehension.
  • Do not talk about the individual without including that person when they are present. Just as you do not assume comprehension, also do not assume lack of comprehension.
  • Encourage communication, and be patient.

Remember, recovering speech and language after an aphasia diagnosis can take time and lots of practice. Give it plenty of time, and remain calm and focused on helping your loved one.

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