Valedictorian with autism delivers moving commencement speech at Rollins College: “I am celebrating a big victory with all of you”

Winter Park, FL – Graduation season has only just begun, but we may have already witnessed the best commencement speech for the Class of 2022.

Elizabeth Bonker delivered an inspiring speech to her fellow graduates of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida on May 8 and urged them to use their voice and be of service.

Shortly after she was diagnosed with autism, Bonker lost the ability to speak. She was 15 months old.

Even though she was nonverbal, Bonker never let it slow her down.

“I am one of the lucky few non-speaking autistics who have been taught to type,” the college graduate said during the ceremony. “That one critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage enabling to communicate and to be educated.”

Bonker was one of several valedictorians. She was unanimously chosen to deliver a speech in front of the graduating class of more than 500 students.

“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,” she said through a text-to-speech program.

The college graduate recalled a particular time in high school when her abilities were questioned.

“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.”

Bonker graduated from Rollins College with a degree in social innovation. She created her own nonprofit, Communication 4 ALL, that serves the autism community to ensure they have all the communication tools they need to excel in life. She is also a poet and author.

“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,” Virginia Breen, Bonker’s mother, told WESH 2.

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