By Natsumi Asanuma, MS, CCC-SLP
Speech Language Pathologist, Susan Mast ALS Foundation
May is not only ALS Awareness Month, but also Better Hearing and Speech Month, which has the purpose of raising awareness of communication disorders and their solutions. The Susan Mast ALS Foundation is committed to supporting people with ALS to communicate their best in the face of speech challenges.
How does ALS affect communication?
ALS causes nerve cells that control voluntary movement to degenerate, causing muscles to gradually weaken and waste away (1). When muscles that control speech, voice, and breathing are affected by ALS, it can cause a person’s speech to sound slurred or nasal, make their voice hoarse or weak, and make talking more fatiguing (1). In a small percentage of individuals, higher mental processes such as memory or language may be affected (1). These symptoms impact a person’s ability to be understood when talking, and the majority of people with ALS are eventually recommended some form of alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) to supplement or replace speech (2).
What can you do about speech problems with ALS?
Individuals with ALS and their loved ones can help ensure that they can maintain connection with others and independence with communication by being proactive about alternative and augmentative communication (AAC). There are simple techniques that people can use to make slurred speech easier to be understood, and easy-to-use tools such as a voice amplifier can help reduce the effort it takes to talk loudly enough. As speech becomes more difficult, people with ALS may use computerized speech generating devices or apps to act as their voices or use low-tech communication boards.
People with ALS who are most successful with communication learn about the available tools and strategies before they need them the most, but it is never too late to improve communication skills. For example, many people who primarily use computerized communication devices to talk find that the synthesized voices on their devices don’t sound like them or have the proper inflection or emphasis their message requires. However, more people with ALS are working on message and voice banking before their speech is affected, which allows them to save recordings of meaningful phrases in their own voice and to create custom synthesized voices.
Loved ones can also learn about communication strategies and AAC to support people with ALS. This can range from practical ways to reduce communication breakdowns and build empathy, to helping set up communication devices for the person with ALS.
What is a speech language pathologist?
A speech language pathologist (also known as SLP, speech pathologist, or speech therapist) is a professional trained to assess, diagnose, and treat speech, language, voice, cognitive-communication, and swallowing disorders. In the United States, SLPs must have a master’s degree and state license to practice, and are certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (3). SLPs work with people across the lifespan in a wide variety of settings, such as hospitals and schools.
SLPs work with people with ALS in settings such as the multidisciplinary ALS clinic, outpatient therapy, inpatient rehab facilities, home health, and acute care hospitals. It is important that people with ALS talk to their doctors and clinic SLPs about speech and swallowing concerns and get referrals to see SLPs early. Most people with ALS who have communication impairments can qualify for speech generating devices through their insurance, and it is important to work with your doctor and SLP to get a communication evaluation at the right time.
What is the role of a speech language pathologist at the Susan Mast ALS Foundation?
Preparing for and dealing with communication impairment can often feel overwhelming or daunting. At the Susan Mast ALS Foundation, the SLP provides outreach and education on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for patients with ALS and their families in a comfortable setting and at a pace that’s right for them. The SLP can connect you to information and resources to help navigate the world of communication strategies, voice and message banking, and communication devices. The SLP also manages loan equipment related to communication to help bridge the gap for things like voice recorders for message banking and voice amplifiers, which are usually not covered by insurance, and works collaboratively with local clinic SLPs.
Contact Natsumi Asanuma, MS, CCC-SLP at firstname.lastname@example.org or 616-622-3066 for more information about communication support for West Michigan ALS families.