Bringing aphasia awareness to the forefront
A brain injury patient must relearn how to talk. A stroke victim knows the words but can’t get them out. An elderly person battling Alzheimer’s disease struggles with speaking, reading and writing. These are all examples of aphasia, a language disorder that currently afflicts a million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health, and disrupts the lives of 180,000 each year in the U.S.
Kristy Weissling’s path to a career focusing on aphasia and the use of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) began with a fascination with neurology as an undergraduate student. While pursuing her master’s degree in speech-language pathology at Nebraska, she got a traineeship at the VA Hospital in Omaha, where she often worked with individuals who had stroke and aphasia.
“That’s when I really started to focus in on the idea that I really liked working with individuals who have aphasia,” said Weissling, an associate professor of practice in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders. “That particular disorder fascinated me in terms of how it so profoundly affected people’s ability to communicate in ways that other disorders may not. I did my thesis on aphasia and working on how to better treat individuals with aphasia.”
Aphasia is caused by damage to the region of the brain that involves the ability to formulate and understand language, most commonly as the result of a stroke. Other causes include traumatic brain injuries, removal of brain tumors, and brain infections. Aphasia is often categorized into eight types, based on an individual’s fluency of speech, auditory comprehension skills, and ability to repeat speech back to another person. Although some people recover from aphasia shortly after experiencing a stroke, many are affected by the disorder throughout the rest of their lives.
“That doesn’t mean it won’t get better,” Weissling said. “It does get better, and it does improve over time. It is something that, for many people, is always going to be there, but something that can improve.”
There are three main categories of AAC: no tech, low tech and high tech. No tech involves helping the individuals use their natural gestures, facial expressions and vocal intonations to augment their messages. Weissling describes low tech AAC as anything without a battery. These techniques include utilizing a person’s drawing skills or their ability to write word fragments, or putting together a communication book that includes names of people, places and other important things that the individual can point at to communicate with other people. High tech AAC includes smartphones and iPads, mobile apps, and dedicated devices whose sole purpose is to be used for communication.
At the Barkley Clinic, clinicians and graduate students utilize the AAC lab to help patients improve their communication in whatever way works best for the individual.
“We have a lot of expertise in augmentative and alternative communication, as well as restorative treatment–the kinds of treatments that help people to talk better,” Weissling said. “We try to come up with a program that really is the best of both, because, in the end, it’s really about communication. Whether you use your speech, a communication book, a communication device or an iPad, it’s all about getting your story out.”
In addition to the AAC lab, the Barkley Clinic has a computer lending program that allows individuals with aphasia to take home a computer with special software on it for extra practice and therapeutic time. There is also an aphasia group at the Barkley Center that brings together individuals with aphasia for support and treatment, while also allowing time for training and supporting the caregivers of those individuals.
This semester, the Barkley Clinic launched its Aphasia Community Partners program, which matches an individual with aphasia with a volunteer who is willing to take them out to engage in community activities.
“Generally, people become, over time, more and more socially isolated, which is why the Aphasia Community Partners program is so important,” said Weissling. “It keeps getting them out there and helps them get reconnected and making friendships. My dream is that we help people stay connected.”
Certified speech-language pathologists from the Barkley Clinic train volunteers in communication strategies to use with individuals with aphasia. The speech-language pathologists then attend the initial meeting between the volunteer and the person with aphasia, and are available to assist throughout the program. Volunteers also receive stipends to help offset the costs of the activities.
Weissling is hopeful that, in time, the Aphasia Community Partners program will include more people across Lincoln and the surrounding area. Ultimately, her goal is to collect data on the program, before expanding it to other communities across Nebraska.
“I believe there are lots of great resources in communities across the state, and that each individual community will have its own solution for how to help people with communication problems. What they need is help realizing that the problem is there and a connection to someone who can help.”
Funding for the Aphasia Community Partners program comes from the annual Aphasia Awareness Walk hosted each June by Nebraska speech-language pathology graduate students. The third annual event was held June 17, on East Campus.
Learn more about the Aphasia Community Partners program by visiting http://go.unl.edu/aphasia-partners.