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Valedictorian with nonspeaking autism delivers inspiring speech to over 500 graduating students

Elizabeth Bonker hasn’t spoken since the age of 15 months because of autism, but she managed to deliver an inspiring commencement speech for the graduating class of Rollins College.

Elizabeth, 24, is one of the four other valedictorians in her class to achieve a perfect 4.0 GPA. She was unanimously chosen by Emily Curran, Sofia Frasz, Jessika Linnemeyer, and Charles Mellin to do the honor of making the speech.

She used a text-to-speech computer program to communicate to the 529 graduating students and their families.

“Today we celebrate our shared achievements,” she began. “I know something about shared achievements because I am affected by a form of autism that doesn’t allow me to speak.”

She also shared that her neuromotor issues prevent her from tying her shoes or buttoning a shirt without help.

Elizabeth, who graduated with a degree in social innovation, wrote her speech with one finger while a communication partner held the 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,” she said.

Aside from Helen Keller, Elizabeth was also inspired by the college’s most famous alumni, Fred Rogers, known to many as Mister Rogers.

“During my freshman year, I remember hearing a story about our favorite alumnus, Mr. Rogers,” she said. “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.”

Being diagnosed with nonspeaking autism came with its own set of difficulties.

“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 r*tard can’t be valedictorian,’” Elizabeth shared. “Yet today, here I stand. Each day I choose to celebrate small victories, and today I celebrate a big victory with you.”

Elizabeth’s dream is to give everyone the chance to communicate. She said 31 million nonspeakers with autism worldwide are “locked in a silent cage.” She vowed to dedicate her life to giving them voices to choose their own path.

Elizabeth’s mom, Virginia Breen, said she “burst into tears” upon hearing her daughter’s speech.

“It was such a long journey for us; you know, there were times which felt a bit hopeless,” she told WESH Channel 2. “Parents with children with autism, I hope that what they may take away from Elizabeth’s story is that their children are capable and that we need to keep investing in them, advocating for them, believing in them.”

Elizabeth said that she isn’t special because all nonspeaking students with autism can be taught to type. Her mission is to change how the world sees autism.

“Just because someone cannot speak doesn’t mean they can’t feel and think,” she said.

At the end of her commencement speech, Elizabeth asked her classmates to rip off a piece of paper from their commencement programs and write the words “life is for service,” and keep the message in a safe place.

“God gave you a voice. Use it. And no, the irony of a nonspeaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me,” she said. “Because if you can see the worth in me, then you can see the worth in everyone you meet.”

The audience gave Elizabeth a standing ovation after her nearly six-minute speech.

Post-graduation, Elizabeth plans to expand her nonprofit, Communication 4 All, which aims to make communication accessible for the estimated 40% of people diagnosed with autism who are non-speaking or minimally verbal.

Elizabeth didn’t utter a word during her address, but she undoubtedly inspired many with her light.

Click on the video below to hear Elizabeth’s valedictorian speech at Rollins College.

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