Nonspeaking valedictorian with autism delivers moving graduation address
WINTER PARK, Fla. (WESH) - A Florida college valedictorian delivered an inspirational speech to her graduating class without actually saying a word. Instead, she used a computer program to share her voice.
At just 15 months old, doctors said Elizabeth Bonker would not have the ability to speak after being diagnosed with autism. But when she graduated from Rollins College last Sunday, she delivered the valedictorian speech.
Bonker shared her words of wisdom through a text-to-speech computer program.
“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,” she said.
Four other valedictorians nominated Bonker to deliver the speech in front of her graduating class of more than 500 students.
“God gave you a voice. Use it. Because if you can see the worth in me, then you can see the worth in everyone you meet,” she said in the speech.
For Bonker’s mother, Virginia Breen, it was an extra special Mother’s Day as she watched her daughter take center stage.
“I’m just going to burst into tears, I think, because it was such a long journey for us. You know, there were times which felt a bit hopeless,” she said.
Breen read her daughter’s messages out loud during an interview over Zoom.
“I am not special. All nonspeaking students with autism can be taught to type. That is my mission. We need to change the way the world sees autism. Just because someone cannot speak doesn’t mean they can’t feel and think,” Breen read.
Bonker says she’ll always be hopeful that people will remember to serve for others, just like her mother did by never giving up.
“Parents with children with autism, I hope that what they may take away from Elizabeth’s story is that their children are capable and that we need to keep investing in them, advocating for them, believing in them,” Breen said.
Bonker is continuing her service after graduation with her nonprofit Communication 4 All, aspiring to make communication accessible to the 31 million nonverbal people worldwide with autism.
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