How to Choose an Autism Charity

If you have a child, family member, or friend with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may want to donate to a charity that supports autism research or people living with autism. There are many to choose from, so start by considering details such as how you want your donation spent and then learning as much as you can about the organizations you're most interested in.

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Narrowing the Options

Here's how to ensure you'll feel good about donating to an autism organization:

  • Select a group that supports the specific aspect of ASD you care about. Different groups have different missions. For example, they may only serve adults with autism, support a particular therapeutic approach, or underwrite particular types of research.
  • Be sure the group really does what it claims to do. Ask for detailed information about programs and outcomes as well as a financial report.
  • Ask people living with ASD if they know about the organization's reputation and real on-the-ground work.
  • Consider attending an event or program to determine if this is the right group for you to support.
  • Think about whether you are interested in supporting a large national organization or a smaller local one that serves your community.
  • Be aware there are charities that promote "fringe" and medically debunked claims, such as that vaccinations cause autism.

Some of the most well-known and well-respected organizations include:

Organization for Autism Research

The Organization for Autism Research (OAR) is rated number one among autism charities by Charity Navigator for its transparency and accountability. OAR is a national autism organization that "strive[s] to use science to address the social, educational, and treatment concerns of autistic 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:

  • College scholarships for adults with autism
  • Programs and resources for self-advocates
  • "Hire autism," a portal for employers interested in hiring adults with autism

Autism Society of America

The Autism Society of America is a grass-roots organization with chapters across the United States, offering person-to-person, community-based support, insights, and advocacy.

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

National Autistic Society

The National Autistic Society (NAS) is a U.K.—based organization with chapters in England, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Among its 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.

Autism Canada

Autism Canada (which incorporates the Autism Society of Canada) is a large, multidisciplinary nonprofit 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 autism spectrum and seeks to:

  • 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

The Asperger/Autism Network (AANE) serves children and adults and provides a mixture of in-person and virtual services to meet the needs of adults with autism, family members, neurodiverse couples, and professionals, no matter where they live. The AANE community is geared towards families and individuals with high-functioning autism (formerly known as Asperger's syndrome), but no formal diagnosis is needed to attend conferences/programs, seek referrals, or access support.

AANE is unique in that people with ASD are involved in every aspect of the organization—from being on the board and volunteering to serving on committees and being paid staff. Also, AANE parent coaches and support specialists are “dual-certified,” with both lived experience in autism and professional expertise. 

MIND Institute at UC Davis

The UC Davis MIND Institute was founded by parents and is focused on research. The Institute conducts a 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 do not have the resources for.

In addition to autism, the MIND Institute focuses on understanding Fragile X syndrome, Down syndrome, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Autism Speaks

Founded by former NBC executive Bob Wright and his family, Autism Speaks has created international events such as "Light It Up Blue" and the Autism Speaks Walk program, the latter of which has raised over $305 million. Eighty-five percent of the organization's funds go towards research, advocacy, programs, and services for both children and adults with autism. Its “Learn the Signs” public service campaign, in particular, is credited with raising parental awareness of autism by 50%.

Other Noteworthy Organizations

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

  • The Autism Science Foundation, while smaller than the MIND Institute, funds some very exciting and innovative projects.
  • Art of Autism is an organization specifically focused on spotlighting talents in the visual arts, while the Miracle Project provides opportunities for 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 nonprofits dedicated to providing a range of services and therapies. Search your area of interest (i.e., behavioral therapy, play therapy, adult support, self-advocacy) and choose a charity that meets your interests.

Other Ways to Give Back

If you you have limited money to donate or would rather get involved in a more hands-on fashion, here are some of the things you can do:

  • 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 or 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. 

A Word From Verywell

When you or someone in your life has been affected by autism, it's natural to want to support the cause, whether that means donating to a charity or donating your time. Getting up to speed on the opportunities that exist and thinking through the options will help you choose a program that makes you feel good about giving back.

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