Auburn speech-language pathology expert answers common questions about aphasia
In March, actor Bruce Willis’ family announced he will retire from acting after being diagnosed with aphasia. Aphasia is a speech-language disorder that affects the communication abilities of an estimated one million Americans. Dallin Bailey, associate professor of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and an expert on aphasia treatment, explains what it means to live with aphasia.
What is aphasia? What causes it?
Aphasia is an acquired difficulty with communicating that is caused by damage to language networks in the brain. There are two major causes: trauma to the brain (via stroke or focal brain injury) and neurodegenerative diseases. People with aphasia due to stroke or brain injury will acquire it suddenly and then often have it for the rest of their lives (although the aphasia may resolve in part or completely, depending on the severity of the injury, the care they receive and many other factors). People with aphasia due to progressive neurodegenerative diseases typically experience a gradual worsening of communication difficulties over time—this type of aphasia may also be called “primary progressive aphasia,” or PPA.
What are the symptoms of aphasia? How can it affect a person’s ability to communicate?
Aphasia can affect any part of communicating, such as finding the words to say, putting words into sentences, understanding what other people are saying or having new difficulty with reading and writing. These difficulties can be very mild frustrations, or they may also be extremely debilitating and detrimental to a person’s quality of life. What is important to understand is that people with aphasia are not less intelligent. They still have personalities, memories, opinions and ideas—they just have difficulty putting these thoughts into words and making the words come out so people can understand them. And because communication goes two ways, aphasia affects the people they talk to, too—especially friends and loved ones.
What are some ways people with aphasia can learn new communication skills, and how can an expert in your field help them?
People with aphasia can gain significant benefit from working with a speech-language pathologist, or SLP. The SLP will review the medical cause of their aphasia and do a thorough assessment of their speech and language abilities. The SLP can then identify specific strategies to make communication easier for the person and their family and provide speech and language therapy. Speech and language therapy includes practicing speech and language skills in ways designed to improve communication and quality of life.
What resources do you recommend for people who want to learn more about aphasia?
To learn more about aphasia, a great resource is the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. If you know anyone who is starting to have trouble with talking or understanding, or who is having trouble communicating after a stroke or brain injury, the person may have aphasia. Contact a doctor, as well as a certified SLP. The Auburn University Speech and Hearing Clinic on campus has certified SLPs and graduate students training to be SLPs who provide speech-language therapy for people with aphasia, as well as other communication disorders.