College Valedictorian Hasn't Spoken Since She Was a Baby

Graduate with nonspeaking autism delivers inspiring address at Rollins College
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted May 13, 2022 8:29 AM CDT

"God gave you a voice. Use it," valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker told classmates at her Florida college in a commencement address Sunday. "And no, the irony of a nonspeaking 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." Bonker, who used text-to-speech software to deliver the address at Rollins College, is affected by nonspeaking autism and hasn't spoken since she was 15 months old, NPR reports. "My neuromotor issues also prevent me from tying my shoes or buttoning a shirt without assistance," Bonker said. "I am one of the lucky few nonspeaking 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," said Bonker. The 24-year-old, one of five valedictorians to achieve a perfect 4.0 GPA, was selected by that group to deliver the address, reports KPMG. Bonker, founder of the nonprofit Communication 4 All, said her dream is to help others communicate. "There are 31 million nonspeakers with autism in the world who are locked in a silent cage," she said. "My life will be dedicated to relieving them from suffering in silence and to giving them voices to choose their own way."

Bonker urged classmates to follow the example of the school's most famous alumnus, Fred Rogers—better known as Mister Rogers—who kept a piece of paper in his wallet saying, "Life is for service," People reports. "Tear off a small piece from your commencement program and write 'Life is for service' on it," she said. "Yes. We gave you the pens to really do it. Let's start a new tradition." She finished the address with a quote from World War II codebreaker Alan Turing: "Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine." (Click for the full address.)

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