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St. Johns County working to become a certified autism destination

Business and tourism officials say the effort is about making history and tourism more accessible for everyone.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Becoming a certified autism destination is a goal for St. Johns County, aiming to be accomplished by the end of next year. Business and tourism officials say the effort is about making history and tourism more accessible for everyone.

They say the initiative involves making sure St. Johns County employees know what people on the autism spectrum or with neuro-differences, need in order to have a fun and safe travel experience. Tourism and business officials are working to get more businesses on board because they say a certain number of businesses must be certified for St. Johns County to become a certified autism destination.

"We're an important part of the history of our country and we want to make sure that that history is accessible to all types of travelers," said Isabelle Renault, president and CEO of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce.

When history comes alive in St. Augustine, it can be noisy. Some exhibits make loud sounds and historic re-enactments can involve firing cannons. Those things can be triggering for people with autism or neuro-differences.

"Knowing in advance of what our guests are going to experience is very, very helpful in making these individuals and families more comfortable about coming to a destination," said Dave Chatterton, general manager of Old Town Trolley Tours and Attractions of St. Augustine.

Chatterton says 100 percent of their staff that works with guests are certified to know how to work with guests with neuro-differences. He says there will be signage on exhibits and staff on-hand to alert guests of things like loud noises.

More than three million people visit St. Johns County per year, according to tourism officials, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds one in 36 children are diagnosed with autism.  

Susan Phillips, president and CEO of St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, says the initiative is not just a good business move; it's the right thing to do.

"What it means for us is that as we market our beautiful destination, we can welcome everyone," Phillips said.

Contact the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce if you want to get involved with the training and learn more about it here.

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