Nonspeaking Valedictorian With Autism Delivers Inspiring Speech at Florida College

A graduating student of Rollins College with nonverbal autism gave a valedictorian speech in Winter Park, Florida, on May 8, via a text-to-speech computer program.

Rollins College released video of the speech given by Elizabeth Bonker, who said she typed the address using one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard.

Bonker said she was one of few people with nonspeaking autism who had 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.

She told her classmates, “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****d can’t be valedictorian’.”

The graduating student received her degree in social innovation. She had recently formed a nonprofit organization called Communication 4 ALL, dedicated to promoting communication access for the millions of people with nonspeaking autism worldwide. Credit: Rollins College via Storyful

Video transcript

ELIZABETH BONKER: Greetings to my fellow members of the elated class of 2022, and to the relieved parents, cheering siblings, and dear friends who supported us. Salutations to the caring faculty, administrators, and staff who fed our brains and nurtured our souls. I would also like to thank my fellow valedictorians, Emily Curran, Sophia Frasz, Charlie Mellin, and Jessika Linnemeyer for giving me the honor of addressing you.

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. My situation may be extreme, but I believe Rollins has shown all of us how sharing gives meaning to life.

During my freshman year, I remember hearing a story about our favorite alumnus, Mr. 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. 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.

Viktor Frankl wrote about the power of sharing in his book, "Man's Search for Meaning." 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 [AUDIO OUT] 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. 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. I want to publicly thank Rollins College for taking a chance on me, for caring about every student, for being a place where kindness lives.

Dear classmates, today we commenced 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. 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.

What is your dream? How will you use your Rollins education to fulfill your mission? How will you rise up to meet the unprecedented challenges of our time? Whatever our life choices, each and every one of us can live a life of service to our families, to our communities, and to the world. And the world can't wait to see our light shine.

So my call to action today is simple. Tear off a small piece from your commencement program and write life is for service on it. Yes, we gave you the pens to really do it. Let's start a new tradition. Take a photo and post it on social media. Then put it in your wallet or some other safe place, just as Mr. Rogers did.

And when we see each other at our reunions, we can talk about how our commencement notes reminded us to serve others. 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.

God gave you a voice. Use it. And know 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.

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. Fiat lux. Thank you.

[CHEERING]

[APPLAUSE]

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