When It Matters: Unearthing the Soul with Archaeologists for Autism


Working with clay with the Rollins College archaeologist
Working with clay alongside an archaeologist from Rollins College. Photo courtesy of Archaeologists for Autism.

Tom Penders has over 30 years experience in the field of archaeology and conducts archaeological surveys for local governments, water management districts, and the Army Corps of Engineers all around the U.S. and in Belize. For about 13 years he’s also been a volunteer archaeological consultant, intent on giving back by working with archaeology students and giving them field experience with environmentally endangered lands. And, most importantly, for about 17 years he’s been the father of Becky, his greatest inspiration, who along with being autistic, is also blind and has epilepsy.

Dire wolf skull being discussed
Discussing the skull of a dire wolf. Photo courtesy of Archaeologists for Autism.

Finding things for Becky to participate in and enjoy has always been a challenge, but she’s been enrolled in various activities to help her stay active and to stimulate her senses. One such program is Surfers for Autism—a safe, fun, judgement-free environment where highly-skilled surf instructors carefully guide children within the autism spectrum into the waves. The surfers and their families are treated like rock stars for a day and get to enjoy a range of activities. Tom was struck by the incredible power of the event – both for the children and their families. And this gave him an idea.

Screened pavilion displays filled up fast
Numerous displays in a screened pavilion that quickly filled with participants. Photo courtesy of Archaeologists for Autism.

Children have always been drawn to dinosaurs and archaeology, so Tom decided to do what he could by starting Archaeologists for Autism – a nonprofit with a mission to unlock the potential of children with developmental disabilities. The organization provides children with autism spectrum disorders, as well as their dedicated families, a chance to experience archaeology in a fun, low stress environment.

Father and daughter working together
A father and daughter working together. Photo courtesy of Archaeologists for Autism.

At their annual event––which took place this November––participants were allowed to walk the grounds of an actual archaeological site and work in a fossil dig pit, an artifact dig pit, a skeleton mapping pit, and an actual excavation unit. Tom spent 10 years leading a research project on this land, so he knows it well. There were also information booths with fossils and educators, live music, face painting and a whole lot more. And the entire event was FREE FOR ALL.

The kids were taught how we excavate, why we excavate, why bags and paperwork is important, and how to identify artifacts
The kids were taught how to excavate, why it’s necessary to excavate, why bags and paperwork are important, and how to identify artifacts. Photo courtesy of Archaeologists for Autism.

We reached out to Tom to see what we could do to help with the event, and he requested the following:

The children were also allowed to excavate under the direct supervision of an archaeologist
The children were also allowed to excavate under the direct supervision of an archaeologist. The new Craftsman shovels were put to work in these areas of the site. Photo courtesy of Archaeologists for Autism.

Children on the Autism spectrum typically need to maintain a diverse sensory diet in order to help regulate their senses and modify how they experience the world around them. This applies to all young children as their brains are developing at a rapid rate and precautions need to be taken to ensure it is being shaped appropriately. Events like these are crucial for these reasons, and let’s be real, they’re insanely fun for anyone participating, regardless of ability and age.

Fossil excavation pit. One child refused to leave. he was there 1.5 hrs
The fossil excavation pit. One young participant was so enthralled that he refused to leave the pit for an hour and a half. Photo courtesy of Archaeologists for Autism.

Archaeologists for Autism is an all-volunteer nonprofit 501(C)(3) organization and 100% dependent on donations. It truly takes a village. If you’re interested in being a supporter, all contributions go directly to running the event and to the operating costs.

Proud to be among those who were able to help. Photo courtesy of Archaeologists for Autism.

For more information, check out the following social media outlets and links:
Twitter: @archforautism
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/arch4autism/
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/archaeologists-for-autism
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/archaeologistsforautism
YouTube: archaeologistsforautism
Website: http://archaeologistsforautism.org

They actually were able to get Becky to smile!!!
Thanks and best wishes to Becky – the person who inspired not only this event, but this entire organization into being. Smiles like this one are rare for her, but she certainly makes it easy for others to smile. Photo courtesy of Archaeologists for Autism.

For more information about how Craftsman Tools is helping communities across the country, check out the When It Matters page.