June 2016, Aphasia Awareness Month
One key message that the National Aphasia Association and other aphasia advocates work hard to disseminate is that aphasia affects speech and language but not intellectual capabilities. Persons with aphasia, and even those with other language disabilities, are frequently perceived as having intellectual deficits because they have difficulties expressing themselves, finding the right words, using correct grammar, reading or writing.
How much of a problem is this misconception?
We asked 1000 people, roughly the same number of men and women, whether they thought that if a person has difficulty with speech, it also means they have intellectual deficiencies.
We were pleased to learn that over 63% of people surveyed disagreed with this statement. However, nearly 20%, or 1 in 5 of the participants, agreed with it. That is, from the 1000 people asked, close to 200 thought that if a person has difficulty with speech, it also means they have intellectual deficiencies.
This is not a surprising reaction – we associate better vocabulary with more education and the ability to express oneself in an effective manner with higher intellect. Making simple grammatical mistakes, using the wrong words, and often not even being able to construct a sentence properly may, thus, seem to be a sign of lower intellect. Moreover, many dementias that affect intellectual capabilities, such as Alzheimer’s, also affect language, contributing to the association between the two. However, in aphasia, particularly when it is caused by stroke or injury, the brain areas that are affected are restricted to those that process primarily speech and language. For that reason, it is possible to lose one’s ability to speak, write, or read, yet still have an intact intellect.
It is hard for persons with aphasia to advocate for themselves because the very nature of the disorder affects communication skills. Which is why, the rest of us – patient advocates, families, friends, and caregivers – should spread the message:
Aphasia does not affect intellectual capabilities. Difficulty with speech does not equate with intellectual deficits.