Connor Cunningham, 18, delivered the commencement speech to the 2017 graduating class of Miami Palmetto Senior High School. He will attend Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota in the fall. Here are excerpts from his speech:
I never imagined I would be standing here — speaking to the 2017 graduating class. As a freshman, it was difficult for me to even hold a conversation with my classmates. I was the definition of socially awkward — and with good reason.
I was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. No one predicted that I would be a student at a large public high school. Back then, my symptoms were overwhelming. The most basic experiences in life — loud noises and music, interacting with my peers, birthday parties, and even eating felt painful and exhausting.
In addition to family support and therapy, interacting with understanding teachers and students helped me to improve. Just like any freshman, I became part of a clique, and I made new friends along the way to graduation.
I guess you could say that a big part of my story is about people who believed in me. It is also about gratitude.
Parents, teachers, and peers have tremendous power to inspire us to do things we never thought we could, even just getting through the day. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Ultimately though, I had to believe in myself, which has not always easy.
During my freshman year, I took a risk. I wrote a paper about what it felt like to be a person with autism, and I presented it to my honors English class. That experience led to my becoming a public speaker, which took root at Sunny Isles K-8.
The PTSA wanted to help the increasing number of autistic children in their classrooms. Their desire to help all children gave me the confidence and the outlet to tell my story, which gave others information about autism, and more important, hope.That experience was the inspiration for a neurodiversity education movement I started, Stand in My Shoes. The movement promotes greater understanding of both the science and experience of neurodiversity.
As all of you might imagine, over the years, a lot of people counted me out. I was socially awkward, I communicated differently, and my grades were high one day and low the next.
Whether you know it or not, people are counting you out as well. As millennials, we are the maligned generation. Outside these doors, across the country, many people seem to think that the moment we take off our caps and gowns, our irresponsibility will put society on life support.
Millennials, they say, are entitled, self-absorbed, lazy, and lacking ambition. We will prove them wrong!
Despite all the stereotypes, there are students sitting in this room whose ambition, compassion, and loyalty rival that of previous generations. What do we bring to the world?
We are free thinkers, not bound by walls or boxes. We care about the planet and we want to make a positive impact in our own unique ways. We are also more accepting of each other’s differences — in terms of race, culture, religion, sexual identity, and disabilities.
The world could do worse. I’d like to leave you with a closing thought. Don’t count yourself out.
Stand up. Resist. Persevere.
It doesn’t matter when you were born or how you came into being. It’s what you do with the life you’re given that determines your place in this world.