What is aphasia? Understanding the communication challenges + 6 tips to help

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More than 2 million Americans are affected by aphasia. Yet many of us heard the term for the first time when actor Bruce Willis announced his recent diagnosis.

Put simply, aphasia is a condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate. The person’s thoughts and personality remain the same, but they can no longer communicate the same way they used to.

To learn more, WellTuned spoke with Dr. Catherine Payne, a BlueCross medical director.

What is aphasia?

Dr. Payne: Aphasia is a condition that impairs a person’s ability to express themselves, understand language or both.

Aphasia often causes difficulty:

  • Speaking
  • Writing
  • Understanding spoken or written words

What are the signs someone may have aphasia?

Dr. Payne: A person with aphasia may:

  • Speak in short or incomplete sentences
  • Use one word or sound when they’re trying to use another
  • Say unrecognizable words
  • Be unable to understand other people’s conversations
  • Not make sense when speaking or writing

What causes aphasia?

Dr. Payne: Aphasia is caused by damage to the brain, with stroke being the most common cause. About 180,000 Americans are newly diagnosed with aphasia each year.

Common causes of aphasia include: 

Dr. Payne: Aphasia symptoms often appear suddenly, and it’s important to assess how serious the issue may be. A good rule of thumb is that:

  • If someone suddenly can’t speak or isn’t making sense and this is new for that person, call 911 and seek emergency medical treatment.
  • If these symptoms appear gradually, call that person’s healthcare provider as soon as possible to schedule an evaluation.

What are the different types of aphasia?

Dr. Payne: The type of aphasia depends on the area of the brain that is damaged.

Wernicke’s aphasia Broca’s aphasia Global aphasia
Caused by damage to The temporal lobe The frontal lobe Multiple language areas
Patients often – Speak in long sentences that don’t make sense

– Add or make up words

– Understand speech

– Can only speak in short phrases

– Get frustrated by being unable to say the same words they’re thinking

– Can’t speak or comprehend language

6 tips for interacting with a person who has aphasia

Dr. Payne: People with aphasia often feel embarrassed or ashamed by their struggles with communication. The best thing you can do is to treat them with respect and dignity.

1. Be patient and understanding

A person with aphasia may need more time to communicate. Allow them to express themselves in their own time, no matter how long it takes.

2. Don’t correct their mistakes or try to finish their thoughts. 

While your intentions may be good, this can leave the person feeling frustrated.

3. Connect with them as much as possible

Aphasia often leads to feelings of severe isolation and loneliness. Let them know you are there for whatever they need.

4. Stay actively engaged in conversation

Get the person’s attention before you start talking. Reduce background noise (ex. turn down the TV), maintain eye contact, and give them your full attention throughout the conversation.

5. Offer alternate ways to communicate

Some people with aphasia prefer writing, drawing, hand gestures or using smart devices.

6. Don’t talk down to them. 

Don’t raise your voice or slow down your speech.

Dr. Payne: A person with aphasia is still the same person, even if their abilities are different. Changing your behavior drastically or unnecessarily will only make them feel worse.

Acting with empathy: How to interact with people who have disabilities

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).