COD student with autism expresses herself through art

COD student with autism expresses herself through her art

As a student with autism, Sonja Vukajlovic struggled in high school and didn't find easy some of the online technology classes she later took at College of DuPage.

But, in her art, Vukajlovic has found a way to communicate that others can appreciate.

"She's a prolific painter," said Jennifer Hereth, a COD art professor who has had Vukajlovic in her classes over several years. "Everyone comes to know and understand her because she is such a serious painter."

With Hereth's help and encouragement, the 25-year-old Oak Brook resident will have a solo art exhibit at the Glen Ellyn Public Library throughout October. An artist's reception will be from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15, at the library, 400 Duane St., Glen Ellyn.

The exhibit will include about a dozen acrylic paintings featuring some of Vukajlovic's favorite subjects - flowers, birds and animals.

"I look forward to it," Vukajlovic said of the exhibit. She added how much she enjoys taking Hereth's classes. "I always learn new things, which makes me happy," she said.

Vukajlovic is one of 224 students on the autism spectrum at College of DuPage, said Michael Duggan, an instructor and counselor at COD who works with autistic students. Some students go on to earn four-year degrees, others take vocational training, and still others focus on mastering life skills.

"I'm incredibly proud of Sonja. She is an amazing artist," Duggan said. "She's a hardworking student."

Duggan, who has written a book being published in December on how educators and counselors can support college students with autism, is the co-founder of Autismerica, a social support group for people on the autism/Asperger spectrum. Vukajlovic has been officer of the group at COD for several years, and recently was chosen as its president.

"I make lots of friends there," she said.

Until last year, Vukajlovic also played flute in the Community Band at COD. Her parents, Grad and Stana Vukajlovic, said they appreciate their daughter's COD experience and the special encouragement and attention Hereth has given her.

"The whole College of DuPage experience has given her a purpose," Stana said. "We've noticed a confidence in her. It makes her happy."

Stana recalled how Sonja was asked to do a painting of a neighbor's beloved dog that was dying.

"The lady was so appreciative," Stana said. "She (Sonja) gets the biggest thrill out of people appreciating what she does."

Sonja, who has part-time jobs at Walgreens and Oak Brook Park District, has struggled in some classes because she is a very visual learner, Grad said. But she took to painting and has been posting some of her works on Facebook.

"Quite a few people have expressed an interest in buying a painting," Grad said.

Although Sonja hasn't sold any of her art yet, that opportunity may come soon. Amy Franco, programming librarian at the Glen Ellyn Library, said the art exhibits of COD students, hung at the top of the stairs on the second floor of the library, attract a lot of attention and sometimes inquiries from patrons who want to buy a piece. Hereth's students have about 10 exhibits a year at the library.

"It gets a lot of exposure," Franco said. "It's a great talking point in the community."

Hereth said she selected Vukajlovic as one of the students to give an exhibit after seeing pictures of Vukajlovic on Facebook at her sister's wedding.

"I wanted Sonja to have wonderful memories from her 20s," Hereth said. "Sonja is such a beautiful person."

Although Vukajlovic could have challenges fitting into a group, other art students have come to know and accept her, Hereth said. Unlike some people with autism who might avoid touch, Vukajlovic is a public hugger, her teacher said. She also sometimes breaks into uncontrolled laughter at inappropriate times, and frequently gives other students nicknames and uses them repeatedly.

But Hereth said Vukajlovic also has shown she can handle unexpected situations. She enjoys having Hereth tell the story of when students were studying the abstract/expressionist style of Jackson Pollack and throwing paint on canvas. One student inadvertently threw the paint backward, turning Vukajlovic's hair green. Vukajlovic took the situation in stride.

"She triumphed it," Hereth said. "She's a very highly functional autistic student. She's not shy about being autistic."

For Sonja Vukajlovic, she's found a place in life to thrive. Asked what she'd like to do in the future, she says she would like to keep doing what she does now.

College of DuPage student Sonja Vukajlovic enjoys painting animals, especially dogs. Courtesy of Sonja Vukajlovic
Flowers are another favorite subject in Sonja Vukajlovic's art. Courtesy of Sonja Vukajlovic

If you go

What: Reception for Sonja Vukajlovic's art exhibit

When: 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15; exhibit up throughout October

Where: Glen Ellyn Public Library, 400 Duane St., Glen Ellyn

Cost: Free

Info: (630) 469-0879

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