Archaeologists for Autism

Florida archaeologist spearheads a unique event in Merritt Island.

Tom Penders is an archaeologist who wears a number of hats. He is the cultural resources manager for the 45th Space Wing, USAF at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station; he heads a small CRM (Cultural Resources Management) firm called Thomas Penders and Associates; he runs volunteer archaeological research projects on weekends from January to April as part of the Indian River Anthropological Society, a local chapter of the Florida Anthropological Society; and he volunteers as an archaeological consultant for the Brevard County Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. 

One might say that he has more than enough responsibilities to keep him busy. But he would be the first to say that his most important responsibility really lies outside the immediate realm of anthropology and archaeology. He is the father of a 15-year-old teenager named Becky. She is autistic. She is also many other things. 

“She was born with a condition called Bilateral Anophthalmia (born without eyes and optic nerves),” he says. “At 5 she was diagnosed with autism and at 10 years she developed epilepsy. We also suspect she has PANDAS [Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections], but has not been formally diagnosed. The major issue is the autism. After 10 years since the diagnosis we are still struggling with understanding autism. It is a long hard road to try and get her the services so she can do just basic everyday living skills. We struggle with the lack of communication. We also struggle finding things for her to do. The non-verbal part is the worst because Becky cannot tell us when she is sick, what is wrong when she is sick, what she wants, etc. Most people, including our family, don’t have any idea what autism is or understand the meltdowns.”



 Tom Penders with daughter Becky. Courtesy Tom Penders


Becky gets around with trusted service dog and friend Thule, who alerts to epileptic seizures, and she has ongoing support from her parents and those who are familiar with her conditions. But unlike work responsibilities, which come and go, for the Penders, this will be a lifelong commitment. In his efforts to find solutions and play his part to bring Becky into life’s mainstream as much as possible, Penders began to search for options.

“Becky plays Challenger League baseball, does surfing and Special Olympics swimming and I wanted to do my part for these kids,” he says. “I just could not sit on the sidelines anymore.” 


Becky and Thule in the hospital

Becky with trusted service dog and friend Thule. Courtesy Tom Penders


So, in partnership with the Scott Center for Autism, the Florida Public Archaeology Network, and the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program, he came up with a unique plan that in essence combined two loves — archaeology and his daughter — to create a vehicle that he hopes will make some difference in the quality of the lives of children and families who struggle with autism. Called ‘Archaeologists for Autism’ (AFA), he hopes to bring children with autism and their families together in one place, where they can experience archaeology and paleontology in a fun, low stress environment.

Penders feels the venue is perfect. It combines two things he knows something about — archaeology and autism — at a historic place called Sams House on Pine Island, Merritt Island, Florida — an area where he had spent years in his official capacity doing archaeology. There, for example, he has documented 2 historic houses, a burial mound, a prehistoric and historic archaeological site, and a Pleistocene mega fauna site (fossil beds). Fortunately, there also seems to be a connection between archaeology and paleontology and people on the autism spectrum.  “I have been told by several parents that children at the high end of the [autism] spectrum and with Asperger’s tend to be drawn to archaeology, history and paleontology,” says Penders. “And it is hard to find events that target children on the spectrum.”


Sams House

The Sams House site. Courtesy Tom Penders


In addition to activities related to archaeology and paleontology, he plans to include a catered lunch, live music, face-painting, bounce houses, and more, all at no cost to the participants. Says Penders: “I want to create a day where children on the spectrum and their parents can forget about autism for a day (if that is possible) and just have fun. Everything will be done at the children’s pace. Their siblings will also participate. Every parent of a child on the spectrum that I have talked to about this concept has been excited we are doing this. My bottom line is that the children have a fun-filled day and their parents are happy.”

But there is an underlying purpose to the fun. According to Penders, one goal is to help unlock the potential of people with developmental disabilities. “It is a very special day where children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can interact with typical peers and wow families with their capabilities,” he adds. In the big picture, the organizers ultimately hope that the event will do its small part to support advocacy for autism issues, promote scientific research, and help eliminate the stigma associated with the condition through public awareness and education, as well as to promote or inspire more community volunteerism. 

Although the first event is only one day in November*, Penders envisions the AFA eventually going nationwide, with local and state autism groups working with archaeologists to sponsor and organize events across the country. “With the rate of autism in children ever on the increase,” he says, “there is a need for events like this.”

Individuals and organizations interested in playing a role or assisting the AFA may contact them at [email protected] and they will provide a sponsorship form. More detailed information about the program may also be obtained at their website. Registration for the event will open on July 7th, 2014.

* Saturday, November 22, 2014, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Sams House at Pine Island, Merritt Island, Florida

Cover Photo, Top Left: Tom Penders examines an artifact while working with UCF students at an archaeology project site. Courtesy Tom Penders


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As Founder and Editor of Popular Archaeology Magazine, Dan is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in archaeology.  He studied anthropology and archaeology in undergraduate and graduate school and has been an active participant on archaeological excavations in the U.S. and abroad.  He is the creator and administrator of Archaeological Digs, a popular weblog about archaeological excavation and field school opportunities.