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Rehab Insights is a weekly blog written by Burke Rehabilitation professionals to offer practical information for patients, families and the community. Its goal is to educate the reader on relevant topics in rehabilitation, general health and wellness.

How Do You Talk to Someone Who Has Aphasia?

June 28, 2016

June is National Aphasia Awareness Month, making it  a great opportunity to answer the question: “How do you talk to someone with aphasia?” 

The first, and most important answer is, “as often as possible.” People with aphasia have a language disorder that can affect speech, comprehension, reading and writing.  It’s most often caused by stroke, but aphasia can also be acquired due to a head injury, brain tumor or neurological illness. Speech therapy can help reduce the symptoms of aphasia, but it can’t replace daily social interaction, which is key to resuming successful communication. Aphasia can be an isolating disorder. Here’s how to help. 

When speaking with someone who has aphasia:

  • Look directly at the person. Facial expression provides a context for what is being said.
  • Wait. Give the person with aphasia extra time to respond. Let the person with aphasia know that you’re comfortable with a little bit of silence in-between words or phrases.
  • Avoid guessing what the person with aphasia is saying, or rushing in with the “correct” word.  In the game “charades,” you might quickly toss out words to guess the meaning of a gesture. But when someone with aphasia is communicating, your “guesses” can be frustrating. He or she will let you know if help with a word is needed.
  • Reduce background noise. Aphasia makes it easier to get distracted by ambient noises and other conversations going on in the background. Try to find a quiet spot for talking.
  • Ask closed-ended, rather than open-ended questions.“What did you do over the weekend?” can seem overwhelming to someone with aphasia. Instead, you might provide a choice of answers, such as, “Did you go out for dinner over the weekend, or did you eat at home?”
  • Observe and listen. Just like everyone else, people with aphasia say things using vocal inflection, gestures and facial expressions, which can convey meaning without words.
  • Provide alternate means of communication. Writing words and even drawing pictures can help to get a point across. At home, an erasable white board might be useful.
  • Stick to one topic at a time. You might even let the person with aphasia know when you’re switching topics.
  • One person at a time. At gatherings, many people often talk at once and the person with aphasia can feel lost. It’s easier for the person with aphasia to jump in, when only one person is speaking at a time.
  • Use a normal, adult tone of voice. Remember that most often with aphasia, intelligence remains intact.

Look, wait, don’t guess, reduce noise, provide choices, observe and listen, write or draw, remember one topic and one person at a time, and use an adult voice.  These simple strategies can help to improve the way you talk with someone who has aphasia. With a little time and patience, they can even bring the person with aphasia back into the conversation again.

For more on aphasia services at Burke, click here

--Susan Wortman-Jutt, MS, CCC-SLP, Speech Language Pathologist in the Outpatient Speech Department at Burke Rehabilitation Center 

photo credit: Flourishing via photopin (license)

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Burke's Rehab Insights blog is intended to provide general information about rehabilitation and other health care topics. It should not take the place of medical care. Burke staff cannot comment on individual medical cases or give medical advice.

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