Top Autism Charities That Deserve Your Support

Make sure you do your research before giving back

You have a child, friend, niece, or grandson with autism and you'd like to support an autism-related charity. Sounds simple, doesn't it? In fact, however, it can be very tricky to choose an autism-related charity that not only meets your personal criteria but is also worth supporting as an organization. That's because:

  • Different groups have completely different missions. Some, for example, want to "cure" autism while others are all about supporting people with autism without any reference to a "cure."
  • Some groups are geographically focused. For example, a top-rated autism charity may only serve people in Oregon, while you live in Florida.
  • Some groups have a very specific focus. For example, they may only serve autistic adults, support a particular therapeutic approach, or underwrite particular types of research.

Let's take a look at the available options as well as some other ways to get involved and give back.

Organization for Autism Research

The Organization for Autism Research (OAR) is rated #1 among autism charities by Charity Navigator because of its careful and appropriate use of donor funds, its transparency, and its accountability. It is a national autism organization that "strive[s] to use science to address the social, educational, and treatment concerns of self-advocates, parents, autism professionals, and caregivers."

The organization supports applied research, which it defines as “practical research that examines issues and challenges that children and adults with autism and their families face every day.” In addition, it has a strong emphasis on ensuring that adults with autism reach their potential. Some of its programs include:

  • Scholarships to college for adults with autism
  • Programs and resources for autistic self-advocates
  • "Hire autism," a portal for employers interested in hiring adults with autism

Autism Society of America

The Autism Society of America may not be the biggest or even the highest-rated autism charity in America, but it is well worth supporting. That's because it is a grass-roots organization with chapters across the United States, offering person-to-person community-based support, insights, and advocacy.

It also provides an online database of local information and recommendations for parents and autism providers. If you need help finding the best therapists, coping with schools, finding a dentist or even a buddy group for your child, the local Autism Society chapter will probably be your best resource.

National Autistic Society

The National Autistic Society (NAS) is a vibrant and busy organization with chapters in England, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Among its incredible array of projects, it runs eight private schools, provides work assessments and employment placement, offers in-home and in-school support, trains members of the community, creates mentorship programs, trains and supports autism professionals, offers credentialing programs, and runs conferences.

In short, whether you're a parent, individual on the spectrum, autism professional, or community member, NAS has you covered. If you're in the UK, chances are very high that you've benefited from a NAS offering.

Autism Canada

Autism Canada (which incorporates the Autism Society of Canada) is a large, multidisciplinary non-profit that provides funding and services for research, education, adult services, and community access.

Its mission, as expressed on its website, is both respectful and supportive of people on the spectrum: 

  • See the potential in people living with autism.  
  • See and understand behavior as a form of communication.
  • See and respect the person as an individual first.
  • See the opportunity to work together to make a difference.

Asperger/Autism Network of New England

There are so many small and wonderful autism-supporting charities, too. Most, however, focus on a single city, state, or region. The Asperger/Autism Network of New England (AANE) provides services and programs across the six New England states. While it is largely intended for people on the "higher" end of the autism spectrum, it also provides programs and coaching for families and individuals at any level of severity.

The organization also provides unusual programs, such as coaching for grandparents, events, support for partnered people on (and off) the spectrum, opportunities to be included in art shows, and more. Perhaps most unusual, AANE does not require program participants to have an "official" autism spectrum diagnosis. Self-diagnosis is just fine!

MIND Institute at UC Davis

The MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis, was founded by parents but focused on research. Today, it conducts a very wide range of research studies while also providing diagnostic and therapeutic services, education, and other programs.

According to its website the founders "envisioned experts from every discipline related to early brain development working together toward one goal; finding and developing treatments for individuals with neurodevelopmental disabilities."

Over the years, it has consistently conducted high level, peer-reviewed studies with impressive results. Because of its funding, expertise, and status, the MIND Institute has also been able to conduct very large autism studies—something that many smaller groups find difficult.

In addition to autism, the MIND Institute also focuses on understanding causes, development, and best treatments for Fragile X Syndrome, Down syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome, and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Other Noteworthy Organizations

In addition to the "best" list above, there are dozens of excellent large or mid-sized autism charities worth considering for various reasons. Here are just a few examples:

  • The Autism Science Foundation, while smaller and less ambitious than the MIND Institute, funds some very exciting and innovative projects.
  • Art of Autism is an organization specifically focused on spotlighting autistic talents in the visual arts, while the Miracle Project provides opportunities for autistic kids and adults to shine on stage.
  • The STAR Institute conducts research, training, and programs to help improve sensory challenges for children with autism and related issues.

In addition to these, there are many well-established, high-quality non-profits dedicated to providing a range of services and therapies. Google your area of interest (i.e. behavioral therapy, play therapy, adult support, self-advocacy, etc.) and choose a charity that meets your interests.

Tips for Donating

If you're concerned (often correctly) that money given to a very large autism charity will be spent on rent or electric bills, consider giving locally. Virtually every city of any size has multiple smaller non-profit autism-related groups and agencies that would be thrilled to have your support. Before giving, however:

  • Select a group that supports the specific cause you care about. Are you interested in helping autistic kids get involved with soccer? Do you want to be sure local families have funds for therapy? If you live in a metropolitan area, chances are you'll find a group interested in the same things you care about.
  • Be sure that the group really does what it claims to do. Ask for detailed information about programs and outcomes as well as a financial report.
  • Check with parents or adults on the spectrum to find out about the organization's reputation and real on-the-ground work.
  • Consider attending an event or program, ideally with an autistic person, to determine if this is the right group for you to support.

Other Ways to Give Back

What if you have limited money to donate or would rather get involved in a more hands-on fashion? If so, you have a number of interesting options available. Here are just a few to consider:

  • Join a fundraising march or similar event. These events are a great way to get to know other people who share your interest in autism and are willing to get involved.
  • Take part in a clinical study. If you live in or near a research center (usually located in major cities or universities), you may be eligible to help with autism-related research. Studies usually involve kids/adults on the spectrum, but may also include siblings and/or parents.
  • Volunteer as a mentor or buddy or help to run a program, team, or event that specifically includes people on the autism spectrum.
  • Become an autism advocate in an organization such as the YMCA or Boy Scouts. These groups (and many like them) are more than willing to include kids on the spectrum, ​but don't always know how to do so successfully. 

Do Your Research

In some cases, the best-known charities are not necessarily those with the most efficient use of funds or with the most medically-backed message.

Autism Speaks

While Autism Speaks is by far the biggest and best-known autism-related non-profit, its history may alter whether you feel it's the most deserving of support.

Formed by a major NBC executive and his family, Autism Speaks has created international events such as "Light It Up Blue," runs marches, provides services, and funds research. Unfortunately, it also has a very poor reputation for not including people with autism on its board and has angered many with its outreach campaigns suggesting that children with autism have had their souls stolen by the disorder.

It has also spent quite a bit of money continuing to research a debunked theory that autism is caused by vaccines. Charity Navigator, which rates non-profits based on a number of factors such as appropriate use of funds, transparency, and accountability gives Autism Speaks only two out of four stars.

Alternative Theories

Starting in the mid-2000's, quite a few autism charities were built around "alternative" theories regarding causes and treatments for autism. Virtually all of these charities still insist that vaccines are a primary cause of an autism "explosion" and many advocate risky and unproven treatments ranging from hyperbaric oxygen chambers to chelation to bleach enemas.

Celebrity Jenny McCarthy became the face of one of these groups. Andrew Wakefield, a doctor who lost his license in Britain for fraudulent research, is the "big name" behind another.

If you are donating to support research, programming, therapy, or programs for people with autism and their families, it may be best to avoid these groups. Yes, they may do a few things you feel good about, but in the long run, they also do considerable harm. 

A Word From Verywell

As you think through your options, consider your own priorities. Do you simply want to support a good organization that has a solid reputation? Are you interested in seeing your money go to a specific type of therapy, school, or project? Would you like to help families in need of financial help or support community programs and inclusion? Whatever your specific area of interest or concern, you will certainly find an autism charity that's more than willing to thank you for your generosity!

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