A college valedictorian at Rollins College in Orlando, Florida, with nonverbal autism delivered an inspiring commencement speech to her graduating class with the help of text-to-speech software on Monday.
Valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker, a 24-year-old liberal arts graduate, urged her classmates to use their voice during their graduation ceremony.
“God gave you a voice. Use it,” she said.
“And no, the irony of a non-speaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me,” Bonker continued. “Because if you can see the worth in me, then you can see the worth in everyone you meet.”
Bonker addressed the many hardships she endured while being autistic, including a comment made by the principal at her high school before she graduated at the top of her class at Rollins College.
“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 the small victories, and today I am celebrating a big victory with all of you.”
According to autismspeaks.org, an estimated 40% of people with autism are non-speaking — 31 million worldwide. Only a small fraction of non-speakers have been taught how to communicate.
When Bonker was born, she could verbally communicate until she was 15 months old. As she described to Stephanie Rizzo, assistant director of editorial content in the marketing office of Rollins, “my words were inexplicably taken from me.”
“My parents took me to Yale Medical School, where I was diagnosed with autism,” she said. “Despite what the doctors said, my parents never gave up on me. They recognized that I was a thinking person trapped in a silent cage.”
During her undergraduate studies, Bonker started a nonprofit, Communication 4 All, which aims to build awareness and take action to help non-speakers with autism access education and communication help, according to her website.