On Wednesday morning at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Education Director Crystal Durrett searches for a spare spot on the wall near the front desk to hang their latest accomplishment.
The framed certificate showing the aquarium is now a Certified Autism Center, an international designation from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES, arrived in the mail this week.
"It's a big deal. We have people of all walks of life coming to the aquarium, and we want them to have a fun vacation and a safe vacation," Durrett said.
To get the designation, aquarium staff completed autism sensitivity and awareness training to learn how to better communicate and engage with guests with sensory needs and their family members, as well as safety concerns and protocols.
When you walk through the front door, the customer service desk has noise-canceling headphones parents can borrow for free.
There are also 'quiet spaces' scattered around the main floor. Some have doors that can close and light switches that can be flipped off. One space is a bench tucked away in a dark tunnel where guests can peer into a large glass tank filled with fish.
Durett said they also recommend that families come early in the morning or after dinner when the aquarium is least crowded.
In light of the new certification, Durett says they plan on hosting more sensory-friendly events than the ones they have regularly scheduled.