“If all my possessions were taken from me with one exception, I would choose to keep the power of communication, for by it I would soon regain all the rest.”

Daniel Webster

Dr. Steven Nissen working on his paintings. (Photo credit: Lyndsay Nissen)

Dr. Steven Nissen working on his paintings. (Photo credit: Lyndsay Nissen)

Communication is essential to life. Beyond its importance when present in peoples’ lives is the impact of its absence, as in the case of a person with aphasia. Due to world population growth, aging, and injuries from war, acquired communication disorders are a rising concern. Often the most devastating change in one’s life is the loss of communication, which strikes a chasm between others and one’s own identity. Art is a visual means of communication that is accessible for people with aphasia from any walk of life, whether it is rural Chinese citizens in the PhotoVoice project or a university professor like Dr. Steven Nissen, who used painting to express his depression, joy, and earnest to achieve goals after a stroke.

Art is intentional and deliberate, and the basis of symbolic thought parallels the arbitrary attribution of meaning to symbols in language. Art aids in improving quality of life, adding to meaningful existence, and expressing ideas and emotions that the disorder restricts through lost language. A growing use of art therapy treatments for aphasia is replacing the isolated use of traditional speech exercises to repair language. Long-time researchers Nancy Helm-Estabrooks and Albert Martin highlight the uses of drawing as both a mode of artistic expression and a tool for conveying messages beyond words.

One use of art in aphasia rehabilitation includes evaluating the effect of aphasia on artistic abilities. Many case studies and testimonials can be found about professional artists whose skills were affected by a stroke or accident; for example, Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd lost use of his dominant hand as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage. After a year of creating art with his nondominant hand, art specialists judged the pieces without information about his health changes; they found the work to be more emotional and artistically intense compared to his earlier work.

Speech therapists have also adopted drawing as a compensatory strategy to accompany speech. Neuroimaging results of people speaking and making art show that different areas of the brain are used, thus combining the use of drawing for communicative purposes causes tandem usage without relying on the linguistic areas alone.

Yet another application is the use of drawing as language. Research by Jon G. Lyons and associates involves substituting drawing for verbal language with effective communication as the focus. Anyone who has experienced a loss, both personally or with loved ones, understands the desperate and driving need to restore communication to one with an acquired disorder. In the words of author David Edwards, the human experience is too complex to be expressed solely in words.

Read more about it at Art and Aphasia: A Literary Review and Exhibition


Jessica Parrish, Western Michigan University