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 the four valedictorians who achieved a perfect 4.0 GPA. Charles Mellin, Sofia Frasz Jessika Linnemeyer and Emily Curran unanimously selected her to deliver the speech.
To communicate with the 529 students who had just graduated and their families, she used a text-to speech computer program.
“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 with us that her neuromotor problems prevent her from being able to tie her shoes or button a shirt without assistance.
Elizabeth, who graduated from college with a degree on social innovation, wrote her speech using one finger, while a partner in communication 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 about service.’ You have probably seen it on the plaque by Strong Hall. Life is for service. So simple, yet so profound.”
Being diagnosed with non-speaking autism has its own set of challenges.
“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 change the way that autism is perceived in the world.
“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.”
After Elizabeth’s almost six-minute speech, Elizabeth received a standing ovation from the audience.
Elizabeth plans to expand Communication 4 All after graduation. This nonprofit aims at making communication accessible to the approximately 40% of people with autism who are either non-speaking or minimally vocal.
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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