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Communicating with someone with aphasia

People who have aphasia have language problems. They may have trouble saying and/or writing words correctly. This type of aphasia is called expressive aphasia. People who have it may understand what another person is saying. If they do not understand what is being said, or if they cannot understand written words, they have what is called receptive aphasia. Some people have a combination of both types of aphasia.

Expressive aphasia may be non-fluent, in which case a person has trouble:

  • Finding the right words
  • Saying more than 1 word or phrase at a time
  • Speaking overall

Another kind of expressive aphasia is fluent aphasia. People who have fluent aphasia may be able to put many words together. But what they say may not make sense. They are often unaware that they are not making sense.

People who have aphasia may become frustrated:

  • When they realize others cannot understand them
  • When they cannot understand others
  • When they cannot find the right words

Speech and language therapists can work with people who have aphasia and their family or caregivers to improve their ability to communicate.

The most common cause of aphasia is stroke. Recovery may take up to 2 years, though not everyone fully recovers. Aphasia may also be due to the brain losing function, such as with Alzheimer disease. In such cases, aphasia will not get better.

Improving Daily Communication

There are many ways to help people with aphasia.

Keep distractions and noise down.

  • Turn off the radio and TV.
  • Move to a quieter room.

Talk to people who have aphasia in adult language. DO NOT make them feel as if they are children. DO NOT pretend to understand them if you do not.

If a person with aphasia cannot understand you, DO NOT shout. Unless the person also has a hearing problem, shouting will not help. Make eye contact when talking to the person.

When you ask questions:

  • Ask questions so they can answer you with "yes" or "no."
  • When possible, give clear choices for possible answers. But do not give them too many choices.
  • Visual cues are also helpful when you can give them.

When you give instructions:

  • Break down instructions into small and simple steps.
  • Allow time for the person to understand. Sometimes this can be a lot longer than you expect.
  • If the person becomes frustrated, consider changing to another activity.

You can encourage the person with aphasia to use other ways to communicate, such as:

  • Pointing
  • Hand gestures
  • Drawings

It may help a person with aphasia, as well as their caregivers, to have a book with pictures or words about common topics or people so that communication is easier.

Always try to keep people with aphasia involved in conversations. Check with them to make sure they understand. But do not push too hard for them to understand, since this may cause more frustration.

DO NOT try to correct people with aphasia if they remember something incorrectly.

Begin to take people with aphasia out more, as they become more confident. This will allow them to practice communicating and understanding in real-life situations.

When leaving someone with speech problems alone, make sure the person has an ID card that:

  • Has information on how to contact family members or caregivers
  • Explains the person's speech problem and how best to communicate

Consider joining support groups for people with aphasia and their families.

Alternative Names

Stroke - aphasia; Speech and language disorder - aphasia

References

Dobkin BH. Rehabilitation and recovery of the patient with stroke. In: Grotta JC, Albers GW, Broderick JP, et al, eds. Stroke: Pathophysiology, Diagnosis, and Management. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 58.

Kirschner HS. Language and speech disorders: aphasia and aphasic syndromes. In: Daroff RB, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SK, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 13.

Page S. Guide to living with aphasia. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2013;94(8):1643-1644. PMID: 24049797 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24049797.

Review Date 5/21/2016

Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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