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Ask the Expert: Talking Aphasia

Joanne Pierson, PhD, CCC-SLP, talks with StrokeSmart about the University of Michigan's state-of-the-art speech-impairment therapy. The aphasia expert says they've seen results as late as 10 years after a patient's stroke.

Matthew Colella Mar 14, 2013

Dr. Joanne PiersonSS: Tell our readers about the University of Michigan Aphasia Program.
Dr. P: UMAP started in1947asawaytooffer intensive speech and language therapy for veterans returning from World War II. Adults with language disorders resulting from stroke, brain injury or brain tumor come here to receive our highly individualized and concentrated therapy. We understand aphasia isn’t curable, but it can be treated.


SS: What makes UMAP different from other aphasia therapy programs?
Dr. P: Definitely the intensive nature of our program. Most standards define intensive therapy as nine hours of training per week. The University of Michigan Aphasia Program’s curriculum requires 25 hours per week. Our program is the first of its kind because our staff is all professional masters-level speech pathologists. During the past five years, a couple other rehabilitation institutions have started up, but we’re the only year-round program in the country.


SS: Can you tell our readers about UMAP’s approach to aphasia therapy?
Dr. P: It’s very encouraging and supportive. Our patients learn to not only help themselves but motivate each other as well. Our program is geared toward individual goals depending on the patient’s level of impairment and their specific needs. It’s very rigorous and very demanding.


SS: What kinds of therapy can a patient expect to receive at UMAP?
Dr. P: Our program uses a three-tiered approach through speech therapy, music therapy and social interactive therapy. The main component is speech and language, the music component helps with rhythm and beat, and the recreational portion helps build social confidence. We have dinner club on Wednesday nights, and on the weekends we go to sporting events, farmer’s markets, bowling, casinos—whatever the group wants to do.


SS: Maybe you can describe some specifics about the program’s aphasia therapy?
Dr. P: In speech therapy our patients receive one hour of high-tech computer training each day in addition to using low- tech devices like picture dictionaries. Patients learn to communicate by pointing to pictures. We have software programs for the iPad and a computer lab for speech production. We have a DVD series that shows patients how to verbalize sounds and practice writing.


SS: And the music therapy?
Dr. P: Music training helps patients follow directions and develop comprehension. It’s great for patterning and sequencing. We have patients clapping, stomping, playing instruments and singing familiar tunes. Melodies can help patients produce words and coordinate oral structure. The music therapy helps patients recall their long- term memory storage.


SS: One aspect that makes UMAP’s aphasia therapy program so unique is the caregiver education and support program. Why is that important?
Dr. P: The loss of language affects everyone: spouses, kids, friends.... Just imagine how devastated you’d be. Put yourself in your spouse or family member’s role who can no longer communicate with their loved ones. It’s going to affect you. You will have to change, too. You will need education and support.


SS: Can you tell our readers how UMAP’s program supports caregivers?
Dr. P: First is education. Most people have never even heard of aphasia until it happens to them. And when it does happen, many are being told at the hospital that whatever they get back within the first six months is all they’ll ever get back. That is categorically untrue. If your readers only take one thing away from this interview it should be this: We’ve seen improvement in patients as late as 10 years after a stroke. Second are our support groups. It’s important that caregivers interact with others who truly understand what is happening. They need to talk and support each other. It is very difficult emotionally. And third are our recreational events. Caregiving is a tough job and sometimes they just need to do things by themselves.


SS: Do you have any parting advice for our readers who may be living with aphasia?
Dr. P: Never give up hope. Know that as long as you work you can make improvements. Find the support systems that work toward regaining speech and language skills. It’s not just you, it takes family and friends to be part of the treatment.•


To learn more about the University of Michigan's Aphasia Program, visit the institution's website:


Not everyone can attend the University of Michigan's Aphasia Program. For a complete listing of aphasia centers in your area, visit the National Aphasia Association website below.

National Aphasia Association: Aphasia Programs & Centers

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