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Intensive Summer Aphasia Program debuts at Northwestern

Gabby Giffords might be the best-known aphasia patient in the country right now, but there are plenty of other Americans living with the impairment—as many as a million people.

A condition that often appears in people in the wake of a stroke, head injury, or other neurological cause, aphasia impairs a person’s ability to understand and use basic language, so things that were once accomplished breezily and by rote—writing a check, say, or reading a child a bedtime story—can become confoundingly impossible.

Isolation, frustration, despair—all are feelings commonly experienced by people with the disorder. “It’s like having your brain hold your words hostage” is how the condition is frequently described.

There is solid evidence, however, that people with aphasia can greatly benefit from four-to-six weeks of intensive therapy—and that this course of treatment is beneficial at any stage of recovery: acute, post-acute, or chronic.

The Northwestern University School of Communication has launched a new program to help improve the lives of people with aphasia—one that will also provide a research platform for scientists and clinicians to further explore the disease and its most effective treatment options.

The Intensive Summer Aphasia Program is a four-week therapeutic regimen created by the School of Communication’s Aphasia Institute, in tandem with the school’s Speech, Language, and Learning Clinic.

“We’re one of the few pilot programs in the country,” said Aaron Wilkins, a faculty lecturer in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, who, along with fellow lecturer Belma Hadziselimovic, co-directs the Aphasia Institute and its maiden summer program.

Clients spend four hours, Monday through Thursday, doing intensive, one-on-one work with a clinician, group work (which includes a book club—Jodi Picoult’s House Rules was discussed this summer), and supervised independent therapy with iPads, laptops, magazines, and newspapers. The iPads, a gift to the School of Communication from Allison Murray (C86), have been an indispensable tool for clients to practice emailing and other computer skills.

It’s a very customized approach. Clients go through testing in advance of their first session and each case is carefully considered by the program’s clinicians. “It’s very important that the clients understand their goals, as well,” Wilkins said. Education and support services for family members and caregivers are also offered during the program.

The research gathered by Wilkins and Hadziselimovic is then shared with Cynthia Thompson, the Ralph and Jean Sundin Professor of Communication Sciences, who directs the School of Communication’s Aphasia and Neurolinguistics Research Laboratory—where the therapeutic program ultimately contributes to bigger-picture scientific research.

Wilkins, for his part, is thrilled by the progress made by the clients in this summer’s program. “We had a very high degree of measurable and functional success,” he said. So much so that those at the Aphasia Institute are considering extending similar intensive services throughout the year.

And plans for a second summer program are already in the works. “We are definitely planning to move forward with it in 2013,” Wilkins said.