An Artistic Strewing Success Story

Strewing can be a little bit like setting a trap, but not at all for meanness. It can be like leaving a gift to be discovered. It can be a little bit like the tooth fairy came, or the Easter bunny. ~ Sandra Dodd

Strewing for a child with Asperger syndrome is just a matter of trying things until you find the one that clicks. When something clicks, it clicks hard, and everything else falls by the wayside.

In my daughter’s case, the click came in the shape of an artist’s lightbox.

Fantasy creature. About age 11.

Frustrated Ambition

My then nine-year-old daughter seemed to enjoy drawing, but she generally ended up shredding whatever she drew in frustration. This behavior was not new for her – people had been telling me since she was a toddler that she was terribly strong-willed, whereas I knew that she was simply unable to adequately deal with reality that didn’t align with the picture in her head (a trait I now know to be typical of individuals with Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism).

Portrait of a friend. About age 12.

When it came to drawing, she totally lacked the skills to draw the picture in her head. When she kept on drawing anyway, I knew it must be very important to her. I began to cudgel my brain for ways to help her over her frustrating learning hump.

I finally remembered an art teacher demonstrating how to hold a picture and blank paper to a window to “save” the good parts by tracing them, then redrawing the messed-up parts. For her tenth birthday, my daughter received a lightbox!

A fantasy creature (a naga) from her stories. About age 13.

At the art supply store and I was pleasantly surprised to find that a good quality 10×13 lightbox cost little more than a much smaller toy lightbox that would break in a few months. (And that first lightbox is still in use seven years later – always get real tools, not toys!)

Striking a Spark

My daughter’s demeanor changed overnight. As soon as I showed her how to put a blank piece of paper over her drawing to retrace the parts she liked so she could fix the parts she disliked, she began drawing for hours each day.

She not only traced her own drawings to fix them, she would find photographs and pictures from books and her older cousins’ drawings and trace them all. Her drawing skills are almost entirely self-taught, largely from her tracing in those first couple of years.

Same fantasy character, drawn just 11 months later. About age 14.

Lighting a Fire

My daughter’s subsequent education has largely centered on art. Of course, as unschoolers, we know how a single topic can spread out to encompass nearly every subject!

For instance, in our unschooly history co-op, one week we would watch a video segment on a historical period, and the following week each student reported on a specific topic for that period. No surprise, my daughter’s topic was art, and she gained a very decent grasp of the history of art through that study – as well as history itself, tied to her favorite topic.

Her love of drawing characters goes hand in hand with her love of writing stories. She writes stories constantly and draws her own characters more than anything, and that has led to mountains of completely self-directed learning.

Here is her own assessment of how drawing has affected her education.

Watercolor painting of a story character. About age 15.

My drawing is directly tied to my stories – if I draw something, there’s almost always a story behind it. That character has a life, a purpose, likes and dislikes. This means that even though I personally don’t care to know a lot about humans, I have to learn through my own creations.

I get obsessed, as most Aspies do. This carries over to my characters, because I always have to know more about the character than the character should even know about himself. This means I have to research history, clothing, culture, technology, recent scientific developments, food, animals, old folk tales, urban legends, the human body, diseases, malformations, and even genetics if I want to figure out what my character’s children are going to look like.

Self portrait. About age 16.

My characters are spread across a wide array of social classes, time periods, races, and even species if we want to count in magical beings. If I have a character, then I have to become an expert on that character and the world he lives in.

If he’s a young boy who grew up in a village in South Africa a few hundred years ago, I have to become an expert on that country and that time period. I learn how the politics work, who’s in charge, what clothing they wear, and if they make it or trade for it. I learn about rites of passage into adulthood and what they eat and learn how their village makes income.

To a more complicated extent, I could have an albino man living in America who’s an expert in chemistry. I research albinism and I find that albinos’ eyes are not in fact red, but are more often purple or blue and it’s common for them to have bad vision.

A character from one of her stories. Almost age 17.

I hate math with the passion of a thousand burning suns. But because my character likes chemistry, I have to at least try to understand chemistry – and the associated math – so that my character knows what he’s talking about. And because I have a reason to learn it, I enjoy it.

(Me again: I feel I should point out here that I have never given her a single spelling or grammar lesson, and this is her unadulterated writing. She turns 17 this month.)

So there you have an unschooling strewing success story. I paid attention to what my daughter was interested in; I strewed the tools, books, and resources she needed in her path; and I sat back and watched her achieve her goals … all because of a lightbox.

Read how unschooling has enabled my daughter to accumulate more than 10,000 hours of expertise in her field of art.

~ Carma


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