On Monday, a valedictorian from Rollins College in Orlando, Florida, who has nonverbal autism, delivered an inspirational commencement speech to her graduating class using text-to-speech software.
Valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker, a 24-year-old liberal arts graduate, urged her classmates to use their voices 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 didn’t escape me,” Bonker continued. “Because if you can see the value in me, then you can see the value in everyone you meet.”
Bonker opened up about the many struggles she endured being autistic, including a comment made by her high school principal before graduating at the top of her class from Rollins College.
“A front-page article in our local newspaper reported how the principal of my secondary school said to a member of staff, ‘The retarded can’t be valedictorian,’” she said. “Yet today I stand here. Every day I choose to celebrate the small wins, and today I celebrate a big win with all of you.
According to autismspeaks.org, it is estimated that 40% of people with autism do not speak, or 31 million worldwide. Only a small fraction of non-speakers have learned to communicate.
When Bonker was born, she could communicate verbally until the age of 15 months. Like her describe to Stephanie Rizzo, deputy director of editorial content in Rollins’ marketing office, “my words were inexplicably ripped out of 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 his undergraduate studies, Bonker started a nonprofit, Communication 4 All, which aims to raise awareness and take action to help non-speakers with autism access education and communication support, she says. website.