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SHP Program Strives to Help Improve Communication for Those with Aphasia

Nov. 15, 2017

By Lauren Clerc

Earlier this semester, the MU School of Health Professions founded the Language Enhancement for Adults Program, a clinical program that focuses on patients diagnosed with aphasia.

Aphasia is an acquired communication disorder resulting from trauma to the brain that impairs communication and understanding. Gwen Nolan, the coordinator of LEAP, said victims of aphasia typically will have suffered a stroke, brain injury or neurological disease.

“From what I’ve seen, I think that aphasia can have implications for all aspects of life,” Nolan said. “As far as communication goes, it can be really isolating because you have a hard time conveying your message as well as understanding messages that are coming in too. It can really impact confidence with communicating in social situations and speaking out to others.”

Despite limitations, LEAP strives to better the communication skills of its participants through both one-on-one therapy with communication science and disorders graduate students each week and group activities once a month.

As LEAP is a training program, Nolan said it has a dual mission of increasing communication confidence in participants while also training and educating graduate students to provide therapy and social communication opportunities. Currently, there are four graduate students involved who work with four clients.

Every Friday, the clients meet with graduate students for individual therapy. The overarching goal of the therapy is to engage in activities stimulating conversation in a variety of contexts, whether that be through functional practices or games.

Claire Custer, an MU graduate student involved with LEAP, said she spends time with her client doing activities such as listening to phone messages, using strategies to improve memory and completing functional activities useful in everyday life. During group activities, they also play games.

Aside from weekly meetings, there are participant-driven group activities once a month. For the first group activity in October, participants chose to have breakfast at Cracker Barrel. Social speech was utilized when ordering from the menu and talking with the waiter. For November’s activity, there was a LEAP casino night at Lewis Hall in which clients and graduate students played card games such as blackjack, betting with candy.

LEAP enables participants to increase the practice of communication in a variety of contexts, and though the program hasn’t been around for very long, its impact on clients is already evident, Nolan said.

“The friendships between the guys has been really cool to see,” Custer said. “I think it can be a really isolating thing when you can’t communicate as well. For all of them to have that community and that support of other people to kind of understand what they’re going through has been [beneficial].”

Beyond those newfound bonds, Nolan said spouses of the participants have reported increased communication attempts outside of the program. However, they will determine concrete results later on.

“At the beginning, I had all the participants rate their communication confidence and competence,” Nolan said. “I also had the students rate it. We’ll do that again at the end of the semester and see where we’re at.”

The group activity for the first Friday of December has already been planned, with clients having opted to host a pizza party accompanied by a white elephant gift exchange. Beyond this semester, Nolan said she hopes to expand the program to include more students and members of the community and remains excited about LEAP.

“It was always a dream of mine to start a program like this so that students could experience more functional types of therapy similar to what they would see in the field so they could learn how to work with people who have both chronic and acute cognitive and language disorders,” Nolan said.

See the full story in The Maneater