Raising Her Voice

May 05, 2022

By Elizabeth Bonker ’22, as told to Stephanie Rizzo ’09

From left: Virginia Breen and her daughter Elizabeth Bonker ’22
From left: Virginia Breen and her daughter Elizabeth Bonker ’22Photo by Scott Cook.

Elizabeth Bonker ’22 long struggled to communicate with a world that didn’t always understand or accept her. Now, armed with her Rollins education, she’s starting a nonprofit to bring communication assistance to those affected by non-speaking autism.

At 24 years old, Elizabeth Bonker ’22 already has a resume to which most would only aspire. The social innovation major, English minor, and 2022 valedictorian is an author, activist, lyricist, and founder of the nonprofit Communication 4 ALL. She’s given a TEDMED talk, starred in a documentary, and helped countless others find their voices, all while graduating with honors from Rollins at the top of her class. And she did it all without speaking a word. Bonker is affected by non-speaking autism and communicates solely by typing, and she has a lot to say, especially about the ways people like her are perceived. Hear from Bonker in her own words about her trials and triumphs and the impact Rollins has had on her life.

I was born healthy and could speak as a toddler. Then, at 15 months old, my words were inexplicably taken from me. My parents took me to Yale Medical School, where I was diagnosed with autism. Despite what the doctors said, my parents never gave up on me. They recognized that I was a thinking person trapped in a silent cage.

It was only when my grandmother happened to see an episode of 60 Minutes that things started to change. The show aired a segment on Soma Mukhopadhyay, the creator of a system called the rapid prompting method (RPM) designed to help autistic non-speakers communicate. My mother reached out to her, and we were off to Texas. I was 6 years old, and we had found my Annie Sullivan.

Elizabeth Bonker uses a keyboard to type in class.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Now, I communicate by typing on a keyboard. But when I first started, I spelled out words by pointing to letters on a letter board. People with non-speaking autism often have difficulty initiating movements, so learning to type is tedious. With months of practice, I made progress, and the world began to open up to me. I started writing poetry because it allowed me to say more in fewer words.

By the time I was a teenager, I’d published my first book, I Am in Here, a collection of poems. Now I’ve just released my first two songs of an album, also titled I Am in Here, a collaboration with The Bleeding Hearts and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, who brought my words to life with their beautiful music.

Deciding to attend Rollins was easy because the College’s focus on community engagement and social innovation supported my life mission. Rollins had also shown great kindness to my older brother, Charles ’19, who is affected by autism and graduated in 2019 with honors.

I majored in social innovation with a minor in English to help build the skills I would need to be an effective changemaker and writer. One of the best things about Rollins’ liberal arts program is that it provides students with the flexibility to take courses across disciplines. I took classes in sociology, statistics, anthropology, education, political science, and more. Every professor invested the time to get to know me and help me think about how to apply their field to my mission. My law and public policy courses helped me advocate on Capitol Hill in summer 2019, and my film and English courses have made me a better storyteller.

Elizabeth Bonker ’22

While at Rollins, I found a community of like-minded social justice advocates in the Pinehurst Organization. I have been deeply inspired by their passions and dedication, whether it was weaving blankets for the homeless, cleaning up Lake Virginia, or volunteering for Second Harvest Food Bank. My fellow Pinehurstians are my friends and cheerleaders.

When it came time to develop a plan for my senior honors thesis, I decided to take the knowledge and skills I’d garnered at Rollins and put them into action. The result was the April launch of my nonprofit, Communication 4 ALL, an organization dedicated to providing communication resources for all non-speakers so that they too can be freed from their silent cage. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my thesis advisor, anthropology professor Rachel Newcomb, and my thesis committee members, communication professor Anne Stone, sociology professor Matt Nichter, and social entrepreneurship professor Josie Balzac-Arroyo, whose mentorship will continue to be invaluable.

Everything I aspire to do relates back to Rollins’ ethos: Life is for service. My journey hasn’t always been easy, but I believe that a life of service is a marathon rather than a sprint. And I am celebrating the small victories along the way as I work to give a voice to my brothers and sisters who suffer in silence. Non-speaking autism is so poorly understood—it’s not a cognitive disorder—and I believe every non-speaker with autism can learn to communicate as I do.

Elizabeth Bonker ’22
Photo by Scott Cook.

I am delighted to be one of five valedictorians representing the class of 2022 and am honored that my fellow valedictorians selected me to give the commencement address. As I prepare to graduate, I reflect on the questions I first had when I came to Rollins: Would I fit in? Would people take the time to get to know me despite my slow typing? Happily, I’ve been embraced by my professors and fellow classmates, and I have cherished being treated like every other student. I hope Rollins has also been impacted by my time here in some small way, in seeing the potential in students who don’t look and sound like everyone else.

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