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A nonspeaking valedictorian with autism gives her college's commencement speech

"God gave you a voice. Use it," Elizabeth Bonker told her fellow graduates. "And no, the irony of a nonspeaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me."
Scott Cook
/
Rollins College
"God gave you a voice. Use it," Elizabeth Bonker told her fellow graduates. "And no, the irony of a nonspeaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me."

She didn't say a word — and that only made her message resonate more powerfully. Valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker recently delivered the commencement speech at Rollins College in Florida, urging her classmates to serve others and embrace the power of sharing.

Bonker, who is affected by nonspeaking autism, hasn't spoken since she was 15 months old. But thanks to an accepting attitude from her peers and teachers and help from technology, she has overcome many challenges and graduated at the top of her class at the Orland0-area school.

"God gave you a voice. Use it," Bonker told her fellow graduates. "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 used text-to-speech software to deliver the commencement address — an honor for which she was chosen by her fellow valedictorians.

"I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard," she 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."

A new Rollins grad looks to a famous alum: Mister Rogers

In her speech, Bonker also evoked another hero: Fred Rogers, the Florida college's most famous alumnus. Last year, the school unveiled a statue of the man widely known as Mister Rogers. And it has long embraced his lessons.

"When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet," Bonker said. "It said, 'Life is for service.' "

She urged her classmates to rip off a piece of paper from their program, write those words down, and tuck the message away in a safe place.

"We are all called to serve, as an everyday act of humility, as a habit of mind," she said. "To see the worth in every person we serve."

The new plan: helping others break through an inability to communicate

After graduating, Bonker plans to use what she has learned to help people who face situations like hers.

"There are 31 million nonspeakers with autism in the world who are locked in a silent cage," she said. Her life's work, she said, will be to help them express themselves.

Bonker recently launched a nonprofit organization, Communication 4 ALL, which aims to break down the barriers facing nonspeakers by providing communication resources, particularly in schools.

She'll also work to educate the public about the millions of people affected by nonspeaking autism. As she has stressed in the past, it is not a cognitive or intellectual disorder.

An estimated 25–30% of children with autism spectrum disorder are nonspeaking or minimally speaking, according to recent studies.

Editor's note (Updated May 23): This story deals with the rapid prompting method, or RPM. Its proponents say RPM helps people with autism engage in written speech. But there is no scientific consensus backing its effectiveness, and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association's official position is that it is "not recommended." An earlier editor's note incorrectly said that Bonker used "facilitated communication," another system which opponents say has been "debunked" but proponents maintain is a valuable tool. The story should have included a reference to those debates.

After being contacted by NPR, Rollins Collins relayed a statement from Elizabeth Bonker's family: "Elizabeth Bonker types independently; she does not use and has never used facilitated communication."

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