By Taylor Knopf
When DJ Svoboda was in high school, he took an art class and all he drew were eyes — eyes of all shapes and sizes.
He gradually added faces, bodies, legs, tails and color, lots of colors. One of the first creatures DJ Svoboda created is called the “Mupperezmo,” a Muppet-like dragon that turns its head upside down.
“He was created to show the world that those with autism think and feel and see things and the world and life much more differently, which is why he turns his head upside down so that he can see things differently, ” DJ Svoboda said. “He is our leader, mascot and, like, the Mickey Mouse of the whole mission.”
DJ Svoboda, now 35, is an artist and motivational speaker. He has drawn thousands of creatures like the Mupperezmo that he calls “Imaginfriends.” He uses them to teach others about autism, a developmental disorder he was diagnosed with at age 3.
He’s been drawing Imaginfriends for 17 years, and he’s inspired by children’s books and shows, like the Muppets. But ultimately, the characters form in his imagination, thus the name.
“I’m happy to say, just like Pepsi Cola, the Imagifriends were born here in the Carolinas,” he said.
His artwork and books are for sale on his website My Imagiville.
“Basically, this is based on all the challenges I faced growing up with autism,” DJ Svoboda said.
“Autism is to be understood and not judged or criticized in any bad way,” he continued.
‘Bullying is not OK’
DJ said his goal is to spread autism acceptance and stop bullying.
“It just takes teamwork and taking a great right stand, and if we all combine our gifts and talents together, we can all build stronger, powerful communities and prove that big, big dreams do come true,” he said.
Based in the Triangle, DJ Svoboda gives talks around the state at churches, conferences, schools and autism education meetings. And he often talks about his experience growing up with autism and being bullied in school.
Even without any training in public speaking, DJ speaks in a very positive, clear and upbeat manner, like that of a children’s show host.
His mother, Cindi Svoboda, travels with him and acts as his manager. She said they also have created several workshops together.
“One is ‘Autism: Our Journey Together, A Message of Hope.’ We share our story together,” she said. “We do another called ‘Bullying Is Not OK,’ where we talk about DJ’s experiences being bullied.”
Cindi Svoboda, a single mom, said she’s continually amazed at what her son has accomplished. She quit her job a year and a half ago to travel with DJ. His art and speaking gigs have become a full-time job for both of them over the past several years.
‘Heart and mind of a child’
When he was diagnosed at age 3, she said she never imagined they would be running this business together. She said her son couldn’t even hold a pen or pencil until high school. A teacher suggested an art class to see if it would help his fine motor skills, and he blossomed.
“He touches people’s lives everywhere we go,” she said. “I’m just honored to be his mom.”
“He’s taught me so much about acceptance and looking at the world from a different point of view. I wish I could spend one day and see how he perceives the world,” Cindi Svoboda said.
In a lot of ways, DJ Svoboda thinks like a child, she said.
“He still believes in Santa Clause. His room is full of toys: Batman, Spiderman, Buzz Lightyear, Transformers,” she said. “You would think it’s an 8- or 9-year-old little boy’s room. He’s a little boy in a big person’s body.”
DJ Svoboda emphasized that it’s always OK to be like a child. He said he wants others to understand that people with autism have a different perspective on the world.
“And many of them have the heart and mind of a young child, which is never a shameful thing at all,” he said.