‘God gave you a voice. Use it:’ Rollins College valedictorian with nonspeaking autism delivers graduation address

Elizabeth Bonker selected to give commencement speech

Valedictorian with non-speaking Autism addresses her graduating Class of 2022 at ceremony

WINTER PARK, Fla. – Before the Rollins College of Liberal Arts Spring 2022 graduating class earned their diplomas, the graduates heard from a fellow classmate who used her unique voice to encourage them to move forward in life in service to others.

Standing at the podium at Showalter Field, Elizabeth Bonker addressed the graduating class. The 24-year-old shared her message not only with her fellow graduates, but with the world.

“I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard. I am one of the few lucky nonspeaking autistics who have been taught to type,” Bonker said, using a text-to-speech program.

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At 15 months old, Bonker was diagnosed with nonspeaking autism. Doctors told her family she wouldn’t talk, but her mother refused to believe there wasn’t a solution.

Her mother sought different treatments to help Bonker find her voice. Bonker at first learned to point to a letter board. She now uses a program to type her words one letter at a time.

“That one critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage, enabling me to communicate and be educated, like my hero Helen Keller,” Bonker said.

Bonker is one of five Rollins College of Liberal Arts valedictorians, including Emily Curran, Sofia Frasz, Jessika Linnemeyer, and Charles Mellin. They all earned perfect 4.0 GPAs.

Her fellow valedictorians chose Bonker to deliver the speech Sunday morning to the graduating class of more than 500 students.

Bonker encouraged them to follow the words of Rollins alum and television’s beloved neighbor, Fred Rogers, who said, “Life is for service.”

“Rollins has instilled in all of us that service to others gives meaning to our own lives and to those we serve,” Bonker said.

Bonker is continuing her service after graduation with her nonprofit organization Communication 4 All. She said her mission is to make communication accessible to the 31 million people worldwide with nonspeaking autism.

“My life will be dedicated to relieving them from suffering in silence and to giving them voices to choose their own way,” she said.

In front of college faculty, staff and family, Bonker and her fellow graduates crossed the stage and took the next steps into their futures. She left them with one final request:

“God gave you a voice. Use it. And know, the irony of a nonspeaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me,” Bonker said. “Because if you can see the worth in me, you can see the worth in everyone you meet.”