Putting Words on Paper Following a Stroke

by Pélagie M. Beeson, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

American speech-language-hearing Association logoWhen a stroke occurs in the
“language hemisphere,”
the resulting injury often
affects the ability to
communicate in writing.
It may become difficult
to recall the spelling of words, or how to put
the words in correct order to make sentences.
In some cases, it is even challenging to recall
how to form the letters that make up words.
These writing impairments are referred to as
agraphia or dysgraphia.
Most people with aphasia also have
agraphia. The disruption to the processes
that support spoken language typically
also interferes with the ability to write.
In addition, weakness or paralysis of the
dominant hand may require a shift to writing
with the other hand.
There are cases where writing is better
than speaking; or the reverse, where writing
is more difficult than speaking. This happens
because there are specialized areas of the
brain that process the written symbols of
language, so where the stroke is located
influences whether a survivor has problems
with written or spoken language.
For most people with aphasia, the ability
to speak is a greater concern than the ability
to write, especially in the first months after
a stroke. Nonetheless, problems associated
with reading and writing certainly interfere
with daily living. Writing a check, making
a grocery list, composing an e-mail — such
everyday tasks may become impossible.
A look at three patients from our clinic at
the University of Arizona illustrates how such
writing impairments may be treated, and how
writing can enhance communication.
Mr. Thorpe’s stroke left him with severe
aphasia. Although he could talk with relative
ease, the words made little sense. His speech
was filled with empty phrases like “all the
time,” as well as utterances that had no
meaning.
Several years after his stroke, we worked
with Mr. Thorpe to help him relearn how to
write. Over the course of a year, he dedicated
himself to writing homework daily and was
able to learn, word by word, the spelling of
Putting
Words
on Paper:
Writing after Stroke
by Pélagie M. Beeson, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
Member, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association March/April 2005 25
about 75 words that were important to him. He learned to write the names
of family members, favorite restaurants, places he had lived, and words
concerning his occupation and hobbies.
Mr. Thorpe was able to write these words in conversational exchange
to communicate specific information that he could not say. His animated
gestures and the expression conveyed in his voice complemented the
written words, and he was able to get across a great deal more information.
In this case, Mr. Thorpe made progress with written language when his
spoken language appeared resistant to change.
Another patient, Mr. Raymond, had a less severe form of aphasia that
allowed him to speak in sentences, but he often had difficulty saying the
words that contained the main content. However, he was often able to write
the word that he could not say, so that conversational interaction consisted
of speaking and then writing down the “difficult words.”
For example, Mr. Raymond might say, “The other night we went to the,
uh, [and he would write the word movie]. It was marvelous. You should see
it. It was with… [he would write Meryl Streep].” So, Mr. Raymond could
write some words that he could not say.
His speech pathologist took advantage of this strength and trained
him to use the written word to help him produce the spoken word. This
required considerable effort to relearn the links between letters and sounds,
but ultimately he was able to say many of the previously “difficult” words.
Mr. Raymond knew he was speaking more and writing less because he
used fewer pads of paper each week.
Another patient, Ms. Vines, was a highly educated woman who had
a stroke in her 40s. Her recovery of spoken language was good, and
she ultimately could hold a conversation with only traces of the aphasia
evident to the listener. But Ms. Vines wanted to return to work and her
hobby of creative writing, so her remaining difficulty with writing was a
great concern.
She wrote, “It is exhausting work, writing. Reading is hard too, but
passive. Writing is active. It takes a lot of brain power just to write a
simple sentence.” Ms. Vines worked with her therapist to relearn the
spellings of words, to sound out difficult words, and ultimately to compose
essays. She uses an electronic speller to help her detect and correct
spelling errors and has made impressive progress in her ability to write.
“Today I am exhausted by a paragraph. Three years ago, a sentence
exhausted me.” She continues to work toward her goal to “write an entire
essay without stopping to recover.”
These three patients with aphasia and agraphia illustrate different
methods of writing rehabilitation. In each case, the patients devoted
considerable time to their rehabilitation and made satisfying improvements.
While problems with written language present a greater loss for some
people than others, working with both spoken and written modalities
enhances rehabilitation.
For more information or to find an ASHA-certified speech-language
pathologist in your area, call ASHA’s Action Center at 1-800-638-8255
or e-mail ASHA at stroke@asha.org or visit ASHA on the Web at
www.asha.org


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