GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Traveling with children who have autism can be challenging for parents, but now they know that Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is a destination that will accommodate any special needs.

Ripley's has completed the process to become a Certified Autism Center, an international designation from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) that shows that the organization is committed to ensure guests with autism and sensory sensitivities have the best possible experience.

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“Often the roadblock isn’t the children, it’s finding businesses that are willing to adapt their operations to accommodate and meet the needs for special needs children,” says Chris O’Shea, who has a child is on the autism spectrum.

Some of the roadblocks can include sensory experiences, dietary restrictions, and safety concerns. Sometimes, just minor changes can make a big difference.

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. 

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Ripley’s of the Smokies has also designed specialized programs for guests with autism and other sensory disorders such as a “Sensory Friendly Night” and an annual Autism Family Day. 

“We have worked very hard training our staff to help serve our guests who are on the spectrum. We look forward to their enjoyment of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies for many years to come,” said Ryan DeSear, regional and general manager of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

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IBCCES also created AutismTravel.com, a free online resource for parents that lists certified destinations and connects families to other resources and each other. Each destination listed on the site has met Certified Autism Center (CAC) requirements. Ripley's is the currently the only destination listed in Tennessee to achieve the designation.