By Karl K
A recent study by the National Aphasia Association revealed that a whopping 84.5% of people have never heard the term “Aphasia.” Aphasia affects about two million Americans and is more common than Parkinson’s Disease, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy. Nearly 180,000 Americans acquire the disorder each year. So, given these numbers, it is surprising how few people know anything about it. I can tell you honestly that I knew what it was, but that is where my knowledge ended.
Aphasia is an “acquired communication disorder that impairs a person’s ability to process language but does not affect intelligence.” 1 People who have Aphasia typically have trouble talking to and understanding others. Many of them are very slow in reading and writing.
This month we celebrate the many gains in treating Aphasia that allow someone to lead a normal life. We celebrate the many hours put in by therapists, caseworkers, staff members, and caregivers that have made this possible. We also celebrate amazing personal desires to go forward in life. At the same time, we note that there is much more to do.
My recent experiences of leading the Aphasia Group at BIND (Brain Injury Network of Dallas) for many weeks have been very rewarding. I find it remarkable to see the interest among our members who do not even have aphasia to learn and help others.
I feel that “victims” is an improper term to use. It is not a disease. It is a disorder. Although it takes time to improve, the results are not always permanent. With work and perseverance, there is the potential to make positive gains in development. The research clearly shows that Aphasia is not correlated with lack of intelligence or mental illness.2
About 750,000 strokes occur each year in America.3 About a third of all strokes result in Aphasia. Between 25-40% of stroke survivors report that they acquired Aphasia at one point in their recovery.4 It can also result from a head injury, brain tumor, or other neurological causes.
People with Aphasia ask these questions, which are usually difficult for them to process. One is about language retrieval and recognition: (1) Can a person say the words they want? (2) Can a person understand what others say? (3) Can a person listen and read without difficulty? Another set of related questions is about how they speak: (1) They have trouble saying the words they want to say. (2) They switch sounds frequently. (3) They use made-up words to compensate instead of staying silent.5
There are two categories of Aphasia problems that you see. Look at these two samples. One is phonemic: “Apple vs. Papple” or “Barber vs. Marmer.” The other is semantic: “Car vs. Van” or “Tiger vs. Lion” or “Foot vs. Shoe” or “Pear vs. Fruit;”
You can help others who suffer from Aphasia. Here are five steps to follow: (1) Be patient and do not rush the process. (2) Use plenty of time to help the person improve. (3) Establish a topic so that the person has a preview of what should follow. (4) Use “yes” and “no” questions, instead of open-ended types. (5) Repeat what they say and ask for understanding.6
I am sad that so many people who need help cannot get it. I feel that way in many areas, not only about Aphasia. Recently, I found numbers that show the current job market is strong for graduates in communication disorders. At the same time, I become angry when the help is wasted.
For several years, I have asked graduate students who are close to finishing their degrees what they would do about this. I know when they get their job, and start working with clients, it is hard and tiring to think about doing work pro-bono. However, it is the best thing and rewarding thing they can do. I encourage them to do that.
You do not need to be a licensed therapist to help someone with Aphasia. All you must do is talk with someone. Listen. Let them try words and phrases. Celebrate their progress. Help them feel good about themselves. That does not cost any money, but the help is priceless.