About Aphasia

a.pha.sia (ay-faze-yuh)

n. Partial or total loss of the ability to articulate ideas or comprehend spoken or written language, resulting from damage to the brain caused by injury or disease.

Aphasia literally means ‘absence of speech’.

Aphasia can cause difficulty talking, understanding conversations, reading and writing.

It is the term used to describe the loss of a previously held ability to speak or understand spoken or written language, due to disease or injury to the language area of the brain.

The ability to use gestures and calculate can also be affected.

The experience of aphasia is different for each person.

Aphasia can vary from mild difficulties finding words, or reading text, to severe difficulties understanding what other people are saying, and being unable to speak.

It is important to know that aphasia is not a loss of intelligence.

Most people develop aphasia as a result of a stroke. Stroke is the greatest cause of major disability in New Zealand. Each day about 24 New Zealanders have a stroke.

Approximately one third of the people who have a stroke will suffer some aphasia. This is roughly equivalent to 6 or 7 people every day becoming aphasic. This number does not include those who suffer from aphasia as a result of other causes such as a head injury and brain tumour.

Aphasia can affect people of any age. Statistics tell us that at least 25% of all stroke patients in New Zealand are below retirement age. In some places in New Zealand, for example in Auckland, this number is greater.

Aphasia affects not only the person with aphasia, but also their families and friends, and people in their community.

Other people can either help or hinder the person with aphasia depending on how they react and what support they offer.

Aphasia Facts

  1. There are at least 17,000 people in New Zealand currently living with stroke-acquired aphasia (this number is probably closer to 20,000).
  2. Strokes are the highest cause of aphasia in New Zealand.
  3. Every day, as a result of a stroke, 6 or 7 additional New Zealanders suffer from aphasia.
  4. Head injury is the second most common cause of aphasia.
  5. PPA (Primary Progressive Aphasia) is another type of aphasia. The Ministry of Health (MoH) estimates approximately 20% of dementia cases in New Zealand may be PPA.

Helpful hints for talking with people who have aphasia

  • Speak slowly and clearly.
  • Minimise all background noise and distractions.
  • Keep communication simple but adult.
  • Allow plenty of time for conversations.
  • Use gesture and demonstration to support what you are saying.

The following strategies may also help:

  • Encourage all forms of communication (writing, drawing, gestures, eye contact, facial expressions) in addition to speech.
  • Structure your questions so that they are simple, and require only a yes/no or single word answer. For example, asking “Would you like a cup of tea?” may be easier for the person to answer than if you ask “What would you like to drink?”
  • Prepare for your conversation – have a pen and paper to hand. Using items like maps, photographs, and pictures when appropriate may also help the person with aphasia to understand you clearly.
  • Avoid speaking for the person except when necessary and ask their permission before doing so.
  • Don’t insist that each word is spoken perfectly. The purpose of communicating is to get a message across – it doesn’t have to be perfect.
  • Don’t change the topic suddenly, introduce new topics clearly.
  • Check that the person has understood what you mean, and repeat/rephrase information if you need to.
  • Try drawing or writing key words if the person is finding it difficult to understand.

Whenever possible continue normal activities (such as dinner with family, company, and going out). Remember that the person with aphasia is still the same person, but they just need your understanding and extra support to be able to communicate.