UA center giving aphasics chance at communication

By Hanh Quach

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Jack paints pictures, but unlike other artists, Jack also draws sketches to clarify points or initiate conversations.

Jack and seven others meet on the UA campus once a week at a support group for aphasic individuals.

Aphasia is a disorder that impairs speech in people who have suffered from left-hemisphere strokes.

Researchers at the University of Arizona's National Center for Neurogenic Communication Disorders conduct eight group sessions every week to help patients maximize communication. Thirty-five to 40 regular patients visit the Speech and Hearing Sciences Building Friday afternoons to work on "communicative success."

The purpose of these groups, said Speech and Hearing Sciences Department Head Audrey Holland, is "to create a climate comfortable enough to discuss the social isolation and handicaps connected with aphasia."

Glenn, a 65-year-old patient in the group, said he feels frustrated when people don't understand him.

"One thing to remember about patients with aphasia is that they're not stupid and they're aware of when you're treating them like someone stupid," said Lise Menn, a visiting scholar from the University of Colorado at Boulder and international researcher of aphasia and communication disorders in children.

Glenn's condition is the result of two strokes which have paralyzed most of the right side of his body.

An artist, Glenn paints, draws and plans to mold pottery. When asked where his art was displayed, he answers in slow, measured decipherable tones, "give it away."

"The most effective way to speak to an aphasic person is just a little bit slower and more carefully than usual," said Menn.

"It is unusual to have so many small conversation groups for patients with aphasia," said Pelagie Beeson, assistant research scientist for neurocommunication disorders.

"Communicating with them is like a guessing game," Beeson said. "People give one or two letters of a word, and based on the context, you have to learn to figure out what they're saying."

In these groups, the patients "learn to do what it takes to communicate," Beeson said. In the sessions, Beeson encourages patients to point, draw, gesture or pull out a communication book to help convey their thoughts.

A communication book works as a directory to the patients' life. It contains vital patient information, phone numbers, family information, the alphabet, numbers or anything that a patient may need to point to in order to help them communicate.

People with aphasia range in different communicative abilities. While some can speak easily, others struggle to produce sound. Almost all patients can recover from this problem, however.

"Some are fluent speakers. Sounds come out, but what they say is not meaningful," Beeson said, "Many may not monitor what they're saying and not know they're not saying anything."

The National Institutes of Health grants more than $1 million per year to the UA to study communication disorders. Holland recently traveled to Washington D.C. to share the nature and importance of the research conducted at the UA with Congress.

Supported by the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, the UA's role touches on supporting research in helping people with aphasia, Holland said.

Another unique aspect of the UA's program is the double role of researching aphasia, Holland said. The group and individual sessions help patients recover from the disorder and at the same time, researchers observe and study how language is processed through the patients.

Present at the groups are a research professional, a graduate student and a clinician.

Family members can attend support groups specifically geared toward helping aphasia patients communicate at home. The center produced a series of documentaries titled "Telerounds" that aired via satellite to help educate the public about communication disorders.

"The small group format with an emphasis on successful communication is a key feature of the program," Beeson said, referring to topics discussed in group such as current events, hobbies or family background.

With groups helping patients practice using the resources available to them to communicate, "it shows them that it works," Beeson said.

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