WINTER PARK, Fla. – Becoming top of the class is a difficult feat, and one of this semester’s valedictorians at Rollins College is proving you can do anything you put your mind to.
Elizabeth Bonker is the first student with nonspeaking autism to achieve the honor.
Rollins graduate and television’s beloved neighbor Fred Rogers once said, “Life is for service.” Bonker is taking that to heart.
“We have to change how we see nonspeaking autism,” Bonker said using a text-to-speak program.
The 24-year-old is graduating from Rollins College on Sunday. She is one of five valedictorians to achieve a perfect 4.0 GPA. She was selected by her fellow honorees to give the commencement speech.
“The speech is so important to me,” Bonker said.
It’s important to not only celebrate the achievement, but also for the opportunity to share her message using her own unique voice — even after doctors told her mother, Virginia Breen, she couldn’t.
“Elizabeth spoke until she was 15 months old, and then suddenly her words were gone within hours,” Breen said.
Breen said her daughter was diagnosed with nonspeaking autism when she was 15 months old. Even though Bonker couldn’t talk, Breen said she refused to believe she wasn’t there.
She sought different treatments to help Bonker find her voice.
“She first started to point to a letter board, and now she has moved on to a wireless keyboard and an iPad because she has the motor control to be able to do those devices,” Breen said.
Bonker’s drive and passion to learn brought her to Rollins College, where she studied social innovation. She uses a text-to-speech program to type out words using her finger, letter by letter. She used this tool to write her honors thesis.
Bonker’s professor and mentor, Dr. Rachel Newcomb, described her as a wonderful student.
“She’s brilliant,” Newcomb said.
Newcomb said the students and staff have all learned from her.
“She’s teaching us all a new way to communicate and that we’re going to be more open to seeing it and helping people to use it in the future,” Newcomb said. “I think that her future is limitless so I’m really excited to see where she goes.”
Life after graduation is taking her on a 20-city road trip with her nonprofit Communication 4 All. Her mission is to make communication accessible to everyone with nonspeaking autism.
“To bring communication to all of these beautiful minds that are locked in a silent cage,” Breen said. “She calls herself one of the lucky few and she wants everyone to have what she has which is to be able to communicate, to be educated and to live a full life.”
She also wants to serve as a voice for those who are still trying to find theirs.
“All non-speakers with autism can be taught to type,” Bonker said. “I hope all parents of children with nonspeaking autism will believe their child is in there and visit our website for help.”
Rollins’ College of Liberal Arts’ four other valedictorians are Emily Curran, Sofia Frasz, Jessika Linnemeyer and Charles Mellin.