In an inspiring graduation speech, a non-verbal autistic valedictorian encouraged her fellow graduates to “be the light” in this world. She hasn’t spoken since the age of ffiteen months, but learning to type allows her to communicate. On May 8, 2022, 24-year-old Elizabeth Bonker delivered her powerful commencement speech using a unique text-to-speech computer program.
Elizabeth’s four fellow valedictorians collectively chose her to deliver the speech. As a result, the 529 graduates of Rollins College, a private college in Florida, got to hear her moving message. She urged her fellow graduates to use their voices and serve everyone they meet. She also described some of her struggles as a non-verbal autistic and how others helped her navigate them.
“Rollins College class of 2022, today we celebrate our shared achievements. I know something about shared achievements because I am affected by a form of autism that doesn’t allow me to speak. My neuromotor issues also prevent me from tying my shoes or buttoning a shirt without assistance.
“I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard. I am one of the lucky few non-speaking 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.”
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In her commencement address, she also mentioned another of her heroes, Mr. Fred Rogers. Most famous as the host of the preschool television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he graduated from Rollins College in 1951.
“During my freshman year, I remember hearing a story about our favorite alumnus, Mister Rogers. 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,” she said.
Non-Verbal Autistic Valedictorian Encourages Peers to Serve Others
Elizabeth continued: “Classmates, you have shared your passion for service within our community. Our friends in the sororities and fraternities raise money for so many worthy causes. Our friends at Pinehurst weave blankets for the homeless. The examples are too numerous to list. Rollins has instilled in all of us that service to others gives meaning to our own lives and to those we serve.”
She also drew inspiration from Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and shared his message about serving others.
“While suffering in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, he noted how, despite the horror, there were prisoners who shared their last crust of bread. He writes, ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’”
“We all have been given so much, including the freedom to choose our own way. 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 said.
“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. The freedom to choose our own way is our fundamental human right, and it is a right worth defending, not just for us, but for every human being.”
Elizabeth continued: “Dear classmates, today we commence together. But from here, we will choose our own ways. For me, I have a dream. Yes, just like Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream: communication for all.”
Elizabeth Strives to Serve Others With Non-Verbal Autism
“There are 31 million non-speakers with autism in the world who are locked in a silent cage. My life will be dedicated to relieving them from suffering in silence and to giving them voices to choose their own way,” she said.
Bonker graduated with a degree in social innovation. then she launched a nonprofit organization called Communication 4 ALL. Its mission is to “ensure that non-speakers with autism have access to the communication and education essential to living meaningful lives.”
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Elizabeth Is a Highly Motivated Non-Verbal Autistic Woman Who Wants to Make a Difference
Adding to her list of accomplishments, she wrote a book called I Am In Here. The book describes her own experience as a child with non-verbal autism.
Around one in 44 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental disorder caused by differences in the brain. In fact, they estimate that around 25-50% of children with ASD have non-verbal autism, inhibiting their speaking ability.
During her speech, Elizabeth told her classmates: “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.
“We are all called to serve, as an everyday act of humility, as a habit of mind. To see the worth in every person we serve. To strive to follow the example of those who chose to share their last crust of bread. For to whom much is given, much is expected.
“My fellow classmates, I leave you today with a quote from Alan Turing, who broke the Nazi encryption code to help win World War II. ‘Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.’ Be those people. Be the light!”
Final Thoughts on Non-Verbal Autistic Valedictorian’s Inspiring Speech
Elizabeth Bonkers, a non-verbal autistic valedictorian from Rollins College, gave a moving graduation speech to her peers. She encouraged them to use their voices and serve others in their own way. Moreover, she’s living that example by helping others with non-verbal autism access the tools they need to communicate.
Elizabeth proves that no matter our struggles, we all have unique gifts to share. So, don’t be afraid to shine!