This article by Bonnie Riva Ras originally appeared on Goodnet.
College commencement ceremonies highlight the transition from being a student to going out into the real world. The valedictorian address marks the occasion by usually telling fellow graduates to go out and be successful and to achieve greatness.
The moving speech at Rollins College – a private college in Winter Park, Florida – on May 8, 2022, admonished the graduates to use their own voices and serve others. It was especially poignant because the valedictorian is a non-speaking autistic woman who never said a word, reported ABC News.
Elizabeth Bonker, 24, was chosen by her four fellow valedictorians, unanimously, to give the address even though she has not spoken since she was 15 months old. She used a text-to-speech device to address the 592-seniors.
Bonker told the graduating class “God gave you a voice. Use it. And no, the irony of a non-speaking 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.”
Communicating With Non-Verbal Autism
Some children gain skills and develop normally for their first 12 months and meet developmental milestones until around 18 months when they lose the skills they once had. An estimated 25-30 percent of children who have autism are non-speaking or only minimally speaking.
“I was born healthy and could speak as a toddler. Then, at 15 months old, my words were inexplicably taken from me, “ Bonker wrote in a Rollins news release. “My parents took me to Yale Medical School, where I was diagnosed with autism. 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.
She learned to communicate by using the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) when she was 6. This involves spelling out words by tapping letters on a keyboard.
Bonker told the graduating class: “I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard. 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.”
Her Future Plans
Bonker graduated with a degree in social innovation, reported ABC News, and she has already accomplished much in her young life. She created her own nonprofit organization, Communication 4 ALL, that has a mission to ensure that communication is available for all non-speaking people on the autism spectrum. She is also a poet and wrote a book, I Am In Here, about her life experiences.
Bonker plans to use what she has learned to help other people who have the inability to communicate, according to NPR. She will use her nonprofit to help break down the barriers children often face in school. She also plans to work to educate the public about the millions who have non speaking autism because she wants people to understand that this disorder does not affect cognitive or intellectual abilities.
“Personally, I have struggled my whole life with not being heard or accepted,” Bonker said in her speech. “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.’
“Yet today, here I stand. Each day, I choose to celebrate small victories, and today, I am celebrating a big victory with all of you.”
So use your voice, live a life of service, and let the world see your light shine. Follow these words of a young woman who has learned to raise her voice, without saying a single word.
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