Nonspeaking autistic college students are making headlines and history as they graduate this year. David Teplitz and Hari Srinivasan, two UC Berkeley students, made national news as they graduated with honors this May using computer programs to interact with the neurotypical “speaking” world. On the opposite coast, media buzz surrounded Elizabeth Bonker, also nonspeaking with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as she graduated valedictorian of Florida’s Rollins College.
These pioneering nonspeaking autistic college graduates have conquered challenges most students never experience. They have paved the way for nonspeaking individuals with autism to do the same. Let’s explore the stories of each of these unique young people!
UC Berkeley’s David Teplitz
David Teplitz, a 24-year-old nonspeaking individual with autism, graduated with a political science degree and has an outstanding GPA of 3.8. Teplitz’s journey begins with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy and speech pathology, starting at just five years old. Because he was nonspeaking, his providers taught him to type, which became an unbelievably helpful method for his communication. This method also helped him navigate the public school system, which is no easy feat. Teplitz hopes to blaze a new trail for nonspeaking individuals who want to attend college.
When Teplitz was asked for his advice to new grads facing similar situations by ABC7 News, he used his computer, his primary method of communication, to type his response letter by letter. “I want people to know,” he typed, “that we (individuals with disabilities) can achieve a lot if we are able to participate.” This kind of mentality can change the foundation for individuals with autism worldwide. It serves as a reminder of the potential and the benefits of goal-setting and optimism!
Teplitz realizes that his story as a nonspeaking autistic college graduate may seem impressive on paper, but everyday challenges require some support. Apraxia, his speech disorder, has limited his ability to interact with peers or have complete independence in daily life. Teplitz was escorted by his aide during his graduation ceremony to obtain his diploma. It was a huge accomplishment and emotional experience for everyone who helped him get to where he is now.
UC Berkeley’s Hari Srinivasan
Hari Srinivasan took a similar path as his friend Teplitz, not letting anything get in the way of acquiring a degree. Srinivasan, also a nonspeaking autistic college graduate, is on the board of the Autism Society of America and published a regular column on UC Berkeley’s student newspaper website. Despite challenges, Srinivasan graduated with a 4.0 GPA and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Vanderbilt University.
When asked how it felt to graduate from one of the top universities in the country, Srinivasan responded by saying it feels wonderful to graduate from Cal. “It has been my dream for many years, and I am proud to accomplish it. I hope it inspires other nonspeakers that want to go to college to know it is possible,” he wrote.
Srinivasan studied psychology and minored in disability studies. As a minimally speaking individual with autism, he types to communicate. As remarkable as his student record is, he went a step further by teaching a semester-long course on autism, where he worked to make his curriculum relevant to current issues.
Additionally, Srinivasan is a board member for the “Spectrum At Cal” student organization, which oversees all campus-related autism events and volunteer efforts. Through writing about disability and non-disability-related issues, he helps train people about accessibility and programming. He has won numerous awards for his work and publications.
Among so many notable accomplishments, Srinivasan is involved in autism research and has been building up skills as a research assistant focusing on mental health and ADHD. He describes that the health care of individuals with autism is often overlooked due to their diagnosis. He dreams of a future that establishes FDA-approved standards to ensure individuals with autism get the relief they need for other health-related conditions, like apraxia, they often face.
Rollins College Valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker
Elizabeth Bonker, valedictorian of Rollins College in Florida, delivered a speech without a single spoken word; it quickly went viral on social media. Affected by a form of autism that makes her unable to speak, Bonker addressed her graduating class through text-to-speech software, like Teplitz and Srinivasan use. Her main point was encouraging her classmates to continue serving others while celebrating life’s achievements. In a bit of purposeful irony, Bonker proposed that her classmates use their voices whenever they could.
Bonker, like Teplitz and Srinivasan, was taught to type, stating that the intervention “unlocked her mind from its silent cage.” Where once she felt silenced, she now has the power to use her voice, speak her mind and change the lives of others facing difficult obstacles.
According to Bonker, there are 31 million nonspeaking individuals with autism in the world who, in her words, are “locked in a silent cage.” Bonker’s life goal is to help give them the voice to choose their way. Bonker, 24, majored in social innovation with a minor in English.
Bonker will soon be starting a 20-city tour for her nonprofit organization Communication 4 ALL, spreading her message that nonspeaking individuals with autism can be taught to type as a means of communication. Communication through media hasn’t been a problem for Bonker. She published a book called “I Am In Here,” along with a companion album of advocacy songs she wrote. Bonker and her mother are also featured in the documentary “In Our Own Hands.”
Bonker states, ” I am not special. We need to change the way the world sees nonspeaking autism. It is a neuromotor disorder, not a cognitive one.” Her speech made it clear that we need to give these individuals options, accessibility, and inclusion.
Attending College with Autism
Students affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have complicated developmental conditions that often result in impairments related to social interaction, behavior, and communication. These individuals may also experience restricted or repetitive behaviors and limited interest. In education, nonspeaking autism has its own challenges. Still, it doesn’t make acquiring an outstanding education impossible!
Both Teplitz and Srinivasan were diagnosed with apraxia. For most individuals diagnosed with this condition, the brain cannot coordinate how the lips, jaw, soft palate, and tongue come together to make sounds, words, and phrases. In the case of Hari and David, both find it difficult to make all of the movements needed to create speech.
The graduates we’ve profiled are referred to as “nonspeaking with autism” as opposed to “nonverbal with autism.” What’s the difference? Usually, they mean the same thing. However, more recently, nonspeaking has become the preferred term because technically, people can use words through other methods than speaking.
For individuals with autism, transitioning from high school to college can be difficult. To remedy this, U.C. Berkeley set goals to help improve the quality of life for individuals like Teplitz and Srinivasan. Hopefully, this will inspire other universities to do the same.
College can present challenges for students with autism, regardless of whether they can speak. Learners may have limited interests, limited communication ability, or difficulty meeting course demands, leading to frustration. However, the excellent news is some schools now offer course programs specifically designed for students with autism! While many of these schools charge an additional fee, it helps make this kind of learning and growth accessible to those considered neurodivergent.
It is critical to recognize that individuals diagnosed with autism are unique in how they are affected. The complexities of their lives will be impacted by the severity and symptoms of their condition. This often varies tremendously between individuals. What needs to be placed at the forefront of autism advocacy is helping support neurodivergent peers by offering them the opportunity for further education. This creates more opportunities for independence and exploration, which we all deserve.
Whatever the challenges autistic students face, pioneers like Teplitz, Srinivasan, and Bonker may have made the college experience just a bit more welcoming than before. This minority group has broken many barriers for generations to come. They have paved a path and given a voice to those who did not have one before.
How Can ABA Therapy Help?
Nonspeaking autistic college graduate David Teplitz started to receive ABA therapy around age 5. This early intervention helped his team recognize that typing was the best way to express himself and meet his needs. ABA therapy helped him cope with autism and ultimately paved the way for him to succeed and be as independent as he can be.
If you suspect your child may have autism or other developmental issues, ABA Centers of America can help. We offer top-of-the-line autism treatment with no waiting list. Early intervention has been proven to lead to the best developmental outcomes for neurodivergent children and teens, as is evident by the life of David Teplitz and so many others.
We work with your child and family directly to produce improvements in behavior, communication, and the development of awareness. We consider the entire individual when designing a plan for effective treatment. Give us a call and see if we are a good fit. Call 844-923-4222 for a free, no-obligation consultation. Or contact us for more information.