UCF Supports Archaeologists for Autism


The third annual Archaeologists for Autism (AFA) event was held on November 19 at the county park Sam’s House at Pine Island Conservation Area in Merritt Island. 15 members of the University of Central Florida’s Department of Anthropology volunteered to help with the event and give children on the autism spectrum a fun and safe experience engaging with archaeology.

110 children and their families registered for this year’s event. Most families were from Florida, however some traveled from Georgia and North Carolina to attend the event.

The five faculty members that volunteered were Associate Professor and Undergraduate Coordinator Sarah Barber, Ph.D., Assistant Professors John Starbuck, Ph.D., and J. Marla Toyne, Ph.D., and Lecturers Amanda Groff, Ph.D., and Sandra Wheeler, Ph.D. There were also five undergraduate students and five graduate students. This is the third year that UCF has collaborated with the event.

This year’s event included excavation of a mock fossil pit filled with actual fossil fragments found in Florida, and archeological mapping station, geocaching, fossil making and a mock civil war burial site equipped with a buried plastic skeleton. There were 19 events in total that took place in addition to many local vendors tabling.

AFA was founded by Tom Penders, an archaeologist and cultural resources manager at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. His daughter is on the autism spectrum and he wanted a safe way for her and other children with autism to enjoy archaeology and paleontology. All of the activities at the event were interactive and educational.

Penders is grateful for UCF’s involvement with the event.

“I could not do Archaeologists for Autism without the Department of Anthropology being a partner,” Pender said. “The faculty and students make up 95 percent of my volunteers. Every year the families single them out for outstanding interaction with the children. I’m hoping for many more years of working together.”

This year marked Wheeler’s third experience volunteering for the event. She plans on continuing her streak for as long as she can.

“Archaeologists for Autism is a wonderful organization,” Wheeler said. “The UCF Anthropology faculty, undergraduate and graduate students have been honored to volunteer with this organization for three years in a row. It has been a fantastic way to bring archaeology to the public in a fun, safe and interactive environment.”

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