Think about your day. How much of it involves language and communication? All day, every day, we use speech and language. It is an integral piece of who we are. Now imagine that you suddenly lose your ability to communicate. The TV sounds garbled, the words your loved ones are saying don’t make sense, written words look foreign to you. You want to explain what’s happening to you, but you cannot express yourself. All of your intelligence is intact, but you’ve lost your words.
A hidden population
This is a condition called aphasia, and approximately one-third of all stroke survivors will experience it. There are over 2 million individuals living with aphasia in the United States. That’s two million people struggling to communicate — more than the number of individuals living with Parkinson’s Disease, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and ALS combined. Yet few people know the word aphasia and what it means.
To understand aphasia, think of the junk drawer in your kitchen that contains coupons and bottle stoppers and rubber bands and many other miscellaneous things that don’t belong anywhere else. You open the drawer to get a bag clip; you know it’s in there, so you search and search, but you just can’t come up with it. In frustration, maybe you give up. This is what aphasia is like: your thoughts are inside your brain, you just cannot find the words. You search and search for the right words — maybe you find them, maybe you don’t.
A range of difficulties
Aphasia can range from severe impairment in language, making communication almost nonexistent, to mild aphasia, which might affect specific vocabulary or word order or make reading or writing slow and labored. The type and extent of an individual’s aphasia depends upon the severity of the injury to the brain and the location in the brain. If aphasia symptoms persist longer than three months following a stroke, a complete recovery is rare. The good news is that with a proper diagnosis and long term treatment, people can and do live successfully with aphasia. Because of brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to re-wire itself) language functioning can continue to improve indefinitely, especially when the individual has ongoing practice and support.
A simple request
The single biggest desire expressed by individuals with aphasia is for the general public to understand the word aphasia: what it is and what it is not. It is a disorder of language, not intellect. Knowing this and using some straightforward communication tips such as those listed below will help to ensure that individuals with aphasia communicate successfully.
A: ask simple questions.
P: provide choices.
H: help communicate if asked.
A: acknowledge frustration.
S: speak slowly and clearly.
I: if you don’t understand, say so.
A: allow extra time.
Darlene S. Williamson, President, National Aphasia Association, [email protected]