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Non-Speaking Autistic Student Gives Powerful Valedictorian Speech


“Life is for service.” These are the words that Rollins College valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker saw, words that inspired Rollins’ most famous graduate, Mr. Fred Rogers. Bonker, who does not speak and is autistic, gave a remarkable speech at the recent commencement ceremony of his school in Winter Park, Florida.

Dressed in a cap and a dress adorned with flowers, Bonker explained, using a text-to-speech program, how she typed her remarks using a single finger with the help of an aid to Communication. People with non-speaking autism struggle to develop speech, and in Bonker’s case, neuromotor problems inhibit his communication and ability to perform other basic tasks.

Learning to type changed everything.

“This critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage,” she said during her speech.

About 25 to 30 percent of people with autism don’t speak, according to a 2018 study. This definition can range from no speech to a small set of sounds or words. According to Bonker’s estimate, there are around 31 million people in the world like her.

Her goal is to help them find their voice, as she did.

“I have a dream. Communication for all,” she said. “My life will be devoted to relieving them of suffering in silence.”

In her speech, Bonker said she was often downplayed or pushed aside because of her differences, and her high school principal once called her an insult and said she would never be valedictorian. .

However, Bonker encouraged her comrades to hold on to their freedom to choose their own outlook and way of life, which she called a “basic human right.”

In this freedom of choice, Bonker hopes that her fellow graduates will choose to live a life as Mr. Rogers did and as she intends.

“We are all called to serve as an act of daily humility; as a habit of mind; to see the worth in each person we serve,” she said.

Bonker was one of five graduate students to achieve a 4.0 GPA, and Rollins College said her fellow valedictorians unanimously chose her to address their fellow grads.

“Elizabeth’s message has given hope to millions of non-speaking autistic people and their families,” Rollins College President Grant Cornwell said in a statement provided to CNN. “We are delighted for Elizabeth and hope the attention to her story will support her advocacy work in the future.”

While at Rollins, Bonker also founded Communication 4 ALL, a nonprofit that supports her dream of ending stigma and silence for other non-speaking autistic people.

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