Stroke is the number one cause of aphasia—a disorder that impairs the ability to speak, understand speech, read, and/or write. Aphasia results from damage to the language areas of the brain. Symptoms range from mild to severe, depending on the location and extent of the damage. But regardless of severity, “it can be devastating to lose the skills you use to communicate,” says Nina Simmons-Mackie, Ph.D., professor of communication sciences and disorders at Southeastern Louisiana University. The good news is that treatment can help, according to data from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. These data show that about 80 percent of stroke patients with aphasia improve with treatment by at least one level on a seven-level scale of language function. And people who improve by more than one level tend to be those who got more treatment. Treatment for Aphasia Ideally, treatment for aphasia should start as soon as possible after the stroke. But it’s never too late. It’s now known that positive changes can occur even long afterward. Because the symptoms of aphasia vary widely, treatment needs to be individualized. A speech-language pathologist (SLP) develops the treatment plan. Often, this involves exercises for practicing key words or phrases, following directions, reading, and/or writing. It may also include rehearsing social communication skills, such as ordering food in a restaurant. Do Your Homework “Homework is usually part of the treatment package,” says Dr. Simmons-Mackie. If you’re recovering from a stroke, your SLP can suggest language exercises to do at home that are geared to your personal needs. Here are examples of the kinds of exercises that may help. Finding lost words. People with aphasia often know what they want to say but can’t think of the word for it. “One strategy for word finding involves building on a network of ideas related to that word,” says Dr. Simmons-Mackie. For example, let’s say you know what a cat is but can’t think of the word for it. You think of other things related to a cat, such as furry, purring, four-legged, drinks milk. One idea leads to the next, and the hope is that they’ll eventually lead you to the word “cat.” At first, you may need help to associate the word with these other ideas. With practice, however, it gets easier. Giving a thumbs up. Communication isn’t only verbal. Gestures and facial expressions also help convey a message. Try out different gestures with family and friends. “For example, we’re always taught not to point. But if you can’t say someone’s name, point to the person—it’s okay!” Dr. Simmons-Mackie says. “If you want a turn in conversation but are slow getting your words out, hold up a finger to signal that you want to talk.” Talking to your computer. Speech-language computer programs help reinforce the same types of skills you’re working on with your SLP. “There are some cool new programs that let you practice independently with a virtual therapist,” says Dr. Simmons-Mackie. For example, a program called AphasiaScripts™ lets you first create and then practice conversational scripts that you can later use in your everyday life.