Scott Cook/Rollins College
She didn’t say a word – and that only made her message ring out more powerfully. Valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker recently delivered the commencement address at Rollins College in Florida, urging her classmates to serve others and embrace the power of sharing.
Bonker, who has non-speaking autism, hasn’t spoken since she was 15 months old. But thanks to the accepting attitude of her peers and teachers, and the help of technology, she overcame many challenges and graduated at the top of her class at the East End area school. Orland0.
“God gave you a voice. Use it,” Bonker told fellow graduates. “And no, the irony of a non-speaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice doesn’t escape me. Because if you can see the value in me, then you can see the value in everyone you meet. .”
Bonker used text-to-speech software to deliver the commencement speech – an honor she was singled out for by her fellow valedictorians.
“I typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard,” she said. “I am one of the lucky few non-speaking autistic people who was taught to type. This critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage, allowing me to communicate and be educated like my heroine Helen Keller.”
A new Rollins graduate turns to a famous alum: Mister Rogers
In his speech, Bonker also mentioned another hero: Fred Rogers, Florida’s most famous college alumnus. Last year the school unveiled a statue of the man widely known as Mister Rogers. And he has long embraced his lessons.
“When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet,” Bonker said. “He said, ‘Life is for service.’ “
She urged her classmates to tear out a piece of paper from their syllabus, write these words down, and put the message away in a safe place.
“We are all called to serve, as a daily act of humility, as a habit of mind,” she said. “To see the value in every person we serve.”
The New Plan: Helping Others Overcome an Inability to Communicate
After graduating, Bonker plans to use what she’s learned to help people facing situations like hers.
“There are 31 million non-speakers with autism around the world who are locked in a silent cage,” she said. Her life’s work, she says, will be to help them express themselves.
Bonker recently launched a non-profit organization, Communication 4 ALL, which aims to break down the barriers faced by non-speakers by providing communication resources, especially in schools.
She will also work to educate the public about the millions of people affected by non-speaking autism. As she has pointed out in the past, this is not a cognitive or intellectual disorder.
According to recent studies, approximately 25-30% of children with autism spectrum disorders do not speak or speak little.