A Nonspeaking Valedictorian with Autism Moves Crowd with Amazing Speech

Rollins College
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Elizabeth Bonker may be nonverbal, but that didn’t stop her from delivering an epic commencement address at her college. The nonspeaking autistic graduate was one of five valedictorians for the Rollins College class of 2022 and voted by her classmates to give the final speech.

In her address to 500 people, Bonker dove right into her celebratory remarks and her unique challenges: “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…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.”

Not only did she use the speech to reflect on her accomplishments, but she also called on her fellow classmates to live a service-filled life. The graduate, who heads up her own nonprofit organization, Communication 4 All, seeks to use her degree to empower people with autism across the globe.

Through her nonprofit, Elizabeth hopes to initiate action and bring awareness so the 31 million nonspeakers with autism so they can have access to the communication tools they need. “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,” she said.

Elizabeth has her mom, Virginia Breen, to thank for making sure she had access to services. Breen tells WKMG-TV News that “Elizabeth spoke until she was 15 months old, and then suddenly her words were gone within hours.” After Elizabeth was diagnosed with nonspeaking autism, Breen sought treatments until her daughter rediscovered her voice. Now, Elizabeth is trying to do the same for others.

“For me, I have a dream. Yes, just like Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream: communication for all… My life will be dedicated to relieving them from suffering in silence and to giving them voices to choose their own way,” she shares in her speech. “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.”

The 24-year-old graduate, who majored in social innovation with an English minor, summed up her speech perfectly and succinctly: “Be the light!”

 

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