×
Non-speaking Autistic Valedictorian Inspires Classmates With Moving Speech | "I Choose to Celebrate Small Victories"

Non-speaking Autistic Valedictorian Inspires Classmates With Moving Speech | "I Choose to Celebrate Small Victories"

She has also founded a non-profit that works guarantee that non-speakers with autism have access to the communication and education necessary to live meaningful lives.

A college valedictorian who hasn't spoken since she was 15 months old due to autism gave an emotional commencement speech on May 8.

Elizabeth Bonker urged her classmates in graduating class of Rollins College to use their voices. She said, "God gave you a voice. Use it. And no, the irony of a non-speaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me. Because if you can see the worth in me, then you can see the worth in everyone you meet."

Bonker was picked by her four fellow valedictorians to give the commencement address to the college's 529 graduating students. Her speech was delivered using a text-to-speech computer program. She has surmounted several obstacles and graduated first in her class at her college in Winter Park, Florida, per NPR



 

 

She said in her speech, "Personally, I have struggled my whole life with not being heard or accepted. A story on the front page of our local newspaper reported how the principal at my high school told a staff member, 'The retard can't be valedictorian.' "

She further continued, "Yet today, here I stand. Each day, I choose to celebrate small victories, and today, I am celebrating a big victory with all of you."

Bonker, who earned a bachelor's degree in social innovation, founded her own nonprofit, Communication 4 ALL. According to their website, it seeks to guarantee that non-speakers with autism have access to the communication and education necessary to live meaningful lives.



 

 

She is also a poet and novelist who penned I Am In Here, a memoir on her experiences growing up with autism, reports Good Morning America.

She said in her speech, "I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard. I am one of the lucky few nonspeaking autistics who have been taught to type. That one critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage, enabling me to communicate and to be educated like my hero Helen Keller."

According to Bonker's organization, Communication 4 ALL, up to 31 million people worldwide with autism are non-speaking, which implies their capacity to communicate or talk has been affected by autism. Bonker used the inspiration of Fred Rogers, who graduated from Rollins College in 1951, to encourage her fellow grads to not only utilize their voices but also to be of service.



 

 

Bonker said, "During my freshman year, I remember hearing a story about our favorite alumnus, Mr. Rogers." She added, "When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet. It said, 'Life is for service.' You have probably seen it on the plaque by Strong Hall. Life is for service. So simple, yet so profound." 

Bonker has further said, "Whatever our life choices, each and every one of us can live a life of service — to our families, to our communities and to the world. And the world can't wait to see our light shine." Bonker intends to utilize what she's learned after graduation to help others in similar situations. 

References:

https://www.npr.org/2022/05/12/1098506522/nonspeaking-valedictorian-autism-college-commencement-speech

https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/living/story/nonspeaking-student-autism-moving-commencement-speech-84644347

https://communication4all.org/about/#mission

Cover Image Source: Rollins College/Youtube