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An inspiration to those around her, a graduate with autism used her voice to advocate for others like her.

An estimated 40% of people with Autism are non-verbal, while 1 in 44 children in the USA are diagnosed with Autism every year. This means that many children in the United States have difficulty expressing themselves and communicating their feelings, something that can be both disheartening and frustrating.

One young woman in Florida was recently given the opportunity to speak up for the voiceless, and what she said was amazing. 

How One Autistic Valedictorian Broke Stereotypes and Inspired Others

college campus
Photo by Ryan Jacobson on Unsplash

Located in Winter Park, Florida, Rollins College is a liberal arts school with a great reputation. One of the most beloved men in American history, Fred Rogers (better known to children everywhere as Mister Rogers) is an alumnus. This year, however, the valedictorian is someone just as special, but a little quieter.

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Elizabeth Bonker is an autistic woman who is also non-verbal, and who had difficulty communicating until she learned to type — a skill that completely changed her life. Her valedictorian speech was given through a text-to-speech program, where she credited typing with being “that one critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage.”

I have a dream. Communication for all. My life will be dedicated to relieving them from suffering in silence.

Elizabeth Bonker

Why a Hard Past Didn’t Stop a Graduate With Autism from Following Her Dreams

Black woman graduate in green cap and gown looks over ledgeBlack woman graduate in green cap and gown looks over ledge

In her address, Elizabeth explained that she had been shunned and cast aside her whole life, even having a former high school principal tell her she would never achieve her dream of becoming valedictorian, and going so far as to call her a slur.

However, Elizabeth never wavered. She was one of only five students at her college to achieve a 4.0 GPA, and was unanimously chosen to give the graduating address by her fellow valedictorians.

She encouraged her classmates to never let anyone else dictate their future, and to always stay firm in their goals. Calling back to Mister Rogers, Elizabeth encouraged her classmates to also lead a life of service in whatever way they can. 

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

Elizabeth Bonker

How a College in Florida Supported an Autistic Woman’s Dreams

graduation ceremony
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Rollins College is just as proud of Elizabeth as they are of Fred Rogers. Her bravery and commitment to advocacy is rare, and not something that the college takes for granted.

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Elizabeth’s message has given hope to millions of people who are nonspeaking autistic and their families. We are thrilled for Elizabeth and hope the attention to her story supports her advocacy work going forward.

Rollins College President Grant Cornwell

Not only are they proud of her for her amazing academic achievements, they are also amazed at how she was able to found a non-profit, Communication 4 ALL, that supports Elizabeth’s dream of ending stigma and silence for other nonspeaking people with autism.

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