Valedictorian With Nonverbal Autism Delivers Moving Commencement Speech: 'God Gave You A Voice, Use It'
"Personally, I have struggled my whole life with not being heard or accepted," Bonker shared.
May 18, 2022 at 8:41 pm
After being diagnosed with nonverbal autism as a baby, Elizabeth Bonker has not spoken since she was 15 months old.
She gave a compelling address on “communication for all” as the class of 2022 valedictorian without uttering a single word from her mouth.
At the Rollins College ceremony, Bonkers used a text-to-speech computer program to talk to 529 graduating students on May 8.
“God gave you a voice. Use it,” Bonker told the audience. “And no, the irony of a nonspeaking 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.”
“Personally, I have struggled my whole life with not being heard or accepted,” Bonker shared. “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.'”
“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 added.
Bonker was unanimously elected to deliver an address by Rollins College’s previous four fellow valedictorians.
Rollins College valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker ’22, who’s affected by non-speaking autism and communicates solely by typing, urges her fellow graduates to use their voices, serve others, and see the value in everyone they meet.
— Rollins College (@rollinscollege) May 9, 2022
In her speech, Bonker also thanked the “faculty, administrators, and staff who fed our brains and nurtured our souls” and shined a light on the 31 million nonspeaking autistic people worldwide who have not had the privilege of learning how to type.
“I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard,” Bonker said in her commencement speech. “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.”
Bonker told USA TODAY how this moment was months in the making and how important it was to share her experience with typing to communicate.
“This commencement address was so important to me. I worked on it for months,” Bonker told USA TODAY, answering questions by typing with one finger,” she said.
“God gave you a voice. Use it. And know, the irony of a nonspeaking 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” Elizabeth Bonker ~ ￼￼Valedictorian ~ Rollins College pic.twitter.com/n1i5hukIUz
— Andrea (@andreaspeaker1) May 10, 2022
Bonker’s mother, Virginia Breen, spoke to WTVM on zoom about the impact of her daughter’s commencement address and the support they have received.
“I’m just going to burst into tears, I think, because it was such a long journey for us. You know, there were times which felt a bit hopeless,” Breen said.
Bonker graduated with a degree in social innovation and founded her nonprofit organization, Communication 4 ALL, to “ensure that non-speakers with autism have access to the communication and education essential to living meaningful lives.”
According to Autism Speaks, about 40% of autistic people are nonspeaking.