Building Meaningful and Connected Lives: A Q&A with the Association for Autism and Neurodiversity (AANE)

As we reflect on the recent month of April as Autism Awareness Month, the Foundation is recognizing our local nonprofit partner, Association for Autism and Neurodiversity (AANE).

With a mission to “provide individuals, families, and professionals with education, community and support,” AANE is creating and fostering an “inclusive atmosphere of validation and respect” in the MetroWest region and beyond. 

In our latest Q&A, Allison Knowles, Grant Writer at AANE, shared more on the organization’s work to provide more opportunities for individuals to build “meaningful and connected lives.”

 Can you tell us briefly what AANE does?

AANE helps Autistic and similarly Neurodivergent people build meaningful, connected lives by providing individuals, families, and professionals with education, community and support in an inclusive atmosphere of validation and respect.

AANE offers one-to-one services, which include: free information and resource consultation; coaching for Autistic adults and teens, parents and other family members, and neurodiverse partners; and independent living support for Autistic adults. We also offer group services, which include: support groups for Autistic adults, Autistic teens, parents/caregivers, neurodiverse partners, and grandparents; and interest-based groups and social events for Autistic adults and teens. Our training and education services include: conferences, webinars, and workshops for all community members; and training for employers, educators, mental health professionals, and other service providers.

What was the need your organization saw in MetroWest, and how are you working to fill it? 

Originally founded in Massachusetts in 1996 by parents and professionals, AANE set out to build a supportive community in the MetroWest area by providing education, information, and referrals to Autistic individuals, their extended families, and the professionals who work with them.

For over 28 years, AANE has been working toward our vision: a world where Autistic people belong and thrive. AANE provides specialized programming that empowers individuals and builds community. AANE’s life-changing programming helps to address the extreme isolation and mental health challenges that so many individuals in the autism community face.

How has AANE grown since your founding?  

AANE has seen tremendous growth in the past ten years, with our budget increasing by 335%. We have served over 88,000 individuals, families, and professionals during our 28-year history.. Shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of our in-person services in the MetroWest area were moved online. During the pandemic, we honed our ability to build community through virtual programming. Four years later, our expertise in online service delivery enables us to foster authentic, meaningful connections, while removing the barriers of in-person programming: anxiety about leaving home, transportation challenges, a lack of childcare, and/or environmental sensitivities that cause stress and discomfort.

What are the greatest needs you see MetroWest seeking from AANE? What are the resources you wish more individuals/families/caretakers would utilize?

With the current public health climate, mental health challenges – such as anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, and suicidality – are on the rise. Research shows that Autistic individuals are four times more likely than neurotypical individuals to experience depression (Hudson et al, 2018). Difficulties with social interactions and social anxiety can prevent Autistic individuals from engaging in social activities, causing loneliness, which is the strongest predictor of depression (Han et al, 2019). Parents of Autistic children also report higher levels of depression, anxiety, and mental-health related issues due to the challenges of caring for their child’s complex needs while also managing the well-being of their family and themselves.

Research has found that while we know that mental health challenges and autism are linked, there is a severe lack of services to support the mental health of this population (Maddox, 2022). To respond to the increased incidence and severity of mental health issues among Autistic individuals, AANE offers affordable, specialized programming.

How does empowering individuals build community and strengthen MetroWest?      

Empowering our community members plays a crucial role in building a stronger and more inclusive community in MetroWest. Autistic individuals bring unique perspectives and insights, and communities greatly benefit from uplifting and honoring their voices. AANE works to spread education and awareness about autism, breaking down stigmas and misconceptions, in hopes of creating more understanding and acceptance within the community. This promotes neurodiversity and environments that accommodate the needs of Autistic individuals in the community, at home, and at the workplace. Supporting Autistic individuals in reaching their full potential fosters resilience and strengths, contributing to the overall vitality of MetroWest. Empowering Autistic individuals not only benefits them individually, but contributes to the overall strength, diversity, and inclusivity of MetroWest.

Why is supporting families just as important as supporting individuals?  

Over the course of their lives, families of Autistic individuals may feel overwhelmed, isolated, and unsure of what next steps to take. They are in critical need of accurate information, assistance navigating both the private and public sector service system, and validation. Because each Autistic individual and their families have unique needs, they require individualized services tailored to them. AANE focuses on individuality, and we are committed to getting to know each community member to understand their strengths, experiences, and challenges.

Do you have any testimonials/case studies you could share? 

Some recent testimonials include:

“I cannot express how grateful I am for AANE.  And I am grateful that your financial assistance program makes it possible for me to have access to your outstanding programing.”

“As an Autistic person, interacting with [this group] helps me to feel like I have permission to exist. I know that’s a big, intense statement, but it’s true. Before receiving support as an Autistic parent of an Autistic teen girl, my underlying thought was “what’s wrong with me, why can’t I be like other people.” That included so much shame. Instead of shame I can have acceptance, accommodation and celebration. AANE has changed and is changing my life significantly.”

“It was so good to talk with someone who could actually help after so many months stabbing in the dark. AANE is a lifeline for someone like me… I can’t thank you enough!”

How can people get involved in your organization?

To learn more about AANE or ways to get involved, check out our website at If you are interested in volunteering, please contact [email protected]. AANE’s volunteer opportunities are highly individualized, and AANE’s volunteer coordinator carefully pairs volunteers’ skills and interests with opportunities that benefit the AANE community.


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