A lot of human communication is non-verbal. People communicate with facial expressions, like a smile or an arched eyebrow. People point, sign, and gesture to enhance and enliven what they are saying. To most of us, it seems natural that aphasia patients can benefit from a mix of speech and gesture in their therapy. But a new study conducted by a team from Ireland, Australia, and the UK shows that mixing methods of communication actually hinders a patient’s progress. The research indicates that patients will make more progress by using only one method of communication at a time.
Researchers measured the comprehension of two groups: 31 aphasia patients and 30 control patients with no language problems. The participants watched 21 video clips of an actor communicating a simple sentence with a gesture. For example, the actor conveyed “I cut it” as a chopping motion with his hand. Participants watched 21 more clips where an actor expressed an idea through a gesture, accompanied by a verbal phrase. And 21 additional video clips featured the verbal expression but only showed a still picture of the actor.
The subjects watched the clips in a random order. They then had to pick an image from a series of four photographs after each clip was played. One photo was a good match for the gesture, one was a good match for the verbal phrase, one was a good match for the combination of the gesture and verbal phrase, and one was unrelated. Patients suffering from aphasia had trouble picking the photo that integrated both the verbal and gestural information compared to the control group. The aphasia patients understood the information much better when only one form of communication was used exclusively. The authors of the study believe that aphasia patients have problems receiving both types of input simultaneously. Therefore, the patients had trouble integrating them.
Consequently, therapy attempting to mix gesture and verbal communication could be hindering a patient’s understanding. Patients can increase the efficiency of their aphasia therapy by requesting that therapists and caregivers refrain from this approach.
The lead author of the original article is Naomi Cocks, School of Occupational Therapy, Social Work and Speech Pathology, Curtin University, Perth, WA, Australia.