Creativity at Work: How an ASHA-certified SLP Inspires Patients with the Arts

Speech-language pathologist Dr. Fred DiCarlo, assistant professor and clinical supervisor at Nova Southeastern University (NSU) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, draws on the arts to enhance communication skills and inspire new confidence in clients and patients with speech-language disabilities. 

“Quite often, when someone loses the ability to communicate, they become invisible,” observes Fred. “But when you give them an outlet that allows them to express themselves another way, people look at them in a different light.”

Fred works every day to inject a sense of creativity into the lives of his clients, most of whom have aphasia or Parkinson’s disease, and his speech-language-pathology graduate student clinicians. His lifelong passion for the arts motivated him to earn an undergraduate minor in theatre and dance, and he knows how the arts can increase social interactions and instill confidence and self-esteem.

“I think it’s really on the clinician to be creative when developing treatment plans that foster communication and engage clients,” he says. “That’s why I try and pull from the creative components of music, art and acting to motivate my clients to interact.”

When it comes to using the arts to treat his clients, Fred considers these events most memorable:

Introducing the Parkinson’s Players

To give some of his Parkinson’s clients the opportunity to tell their stories comfortably, Fred invited them to compose and later perform dramatic monologues that described their experiences with their disability. The idea came to him as an ode to the Vagina Monologues, an off-Broadway play in New York that tells individual stories of the” feminine experience”. The play inspired Fred to present monologues that instead would show the “Parkinson’s experience.”

The result was The Parkinson’s Players, a group of adults who participated in a weekly support and treatment group at NSU that not only helped them deal with their struggles with speech and language, but also turned them into actors with a capital A. By the time the players stood on the university stage and delivered their soliloquies to a 150-person audience, they were speaking with a clarity, conviction and confidence Fred always knew would surface if they had a more creative platform to express themselves.

… And the Aphasia Dancers

Several years later, when Fred became actively involved with an aphasia group at NSU in 2015, he found out two of his aphasia clients were ballroom dancers who came to life on the dance floor. Aphasia is a communication disorder that results from damage to the parts of the brain that contain speech and language, making it very difficult for individuals to communicate and engage with others.

It struck Fred that learning the waltz and foxtrot could nudge other aphasic clients out of their shells, too, and move them to interact and talk to others. When his clients agreed to give it a go, the “Dancing with the Aphasia Group Stars” show was born.

Over the course of a semester, Fred’s seasoned ballroom-dancer aphasic clients taught others the steps while he and his graduate student clinicians planned an event modeled on the Dancing with the Stars TV show. While they learned to dance, the clients followed specific instructions and used words tailored to their needs.

In the end, more than 50 people attended, from faculty members and students to clients and their families. After the dancing, the judging (by two speech-language pathologists and an occupational therapist) and the awarding of winners’ trophies, one patient’s spouse stood up to share her ultimate praise for the show and care received by her and her husband.

“Dr. DiCarlo, students, NSU, you changed our lives. You make every day worth getting up for. Now my husband is talking more and is more engaged.”

The effort proved so successful colleagues in Fred’s department have come to look to him for ways to inspire clients’ communication skills through creativity. He hopes his artistic movement in future therapeutic projects will continue and include those from other disciplines to foster inter-professional education and practice at NSU.

“It’s been a chain reaction ever since that show happened in December of 2016,” he says. “My plan now is to, at least once a year, have some artistic project that will showcase the students, the clients and NSU.”