Elizabeth Bonker hasn't spoken out loud since she was 15 months old due to nonspeaking autism, but that didn't stop her from delivering a moving and powerful commencement speech during her graduation from Rollins College.

Bonker was diagnosed with nonspeaking autism when she was a toddler, and uses a text-to-speech program to communicate with the world. She used the program to deliver her valedictorian address to her fellow graduates.

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"God gave you a voice. Use it," she said. "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."

"Rollins College class of 2022, today we celebrate our shared achievements," she continued. "I know something about shared achievements because I am affected by a form of autism that doesn’t allow me to speak. My neuromotor issues also prevent me from tying my shoes or buttoning a shirt without assistance. I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard. I am one of the lucky few non-speaking 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."

The four other valedictorians at Rollins College unanimously elected Bonker to give the speech. Fred Rogers was a 1951 graduate of the college, and Bonker shared how Mister Rogers himself inspired her during her time as a student.

"During my freshman year, I remember hearing a story about our favorite alumnus, Mr. Rogers," she said. "When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet. It said, 'Life is for service.' You have probably seen it on the plaque by Strong Hall. Life is for service. So simple, yet so profound."

During her speech, she talked about how she's struggled with not being heard or accepted throughout her life. She even said her high school principal used a slur against her when she was chosen as valedictorian back then, too.

"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."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in 44 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which describes the range of different ways autism may affect a person's ability to communicate, learn and interact with others.

Around 25 to 30 percent of children with ASD are minimally verbal (meaning they speak fewer than 30 words) or don't speak at all. When an autistic person doesn't speak, it's known as nonspeaking autism. It has also been described as "nonverbal autism," which isn't entirely accurate. The ASD community prefers "nonspeaking," because even if an autistic person is nonspeaking, they can still use words in other ways—via writing or text-to-speech communication, for example. They may also comprehend words that are spoken to them as well.

Related: This stranger’s kindness to a child with autism is a lesson in compassion

Bonker graduated with a degree in social innovation, and has already created her own nonprofit organization called Communication 4 ALL. The organization works to "ensure that non-speakers with autism have access to the communication and education essential to living meaningful lives," according to its website.

She is also an author who wrote the book, "I Am In Here" about her life as a child with autism.

Concluding her address, Bonker encouraged her fellow graduates to be inspired by Mister Rogers and commit their lives to acts of service.

"My fellow classmates, I leave you today with a quote from Alan Turing, who broke the Nazi encryption code to help win World War II: 'Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.'"


I Am In Here

I Am in Here is the spiritual journey of a mother and daughter who refuse to give up hope, who celebrate their victories, and who keep trying to move forward despite the obstacles. Although she cannot speak, Elizabeth writes poetry that shines a light on the inner world of autism and the world around us.