Pittsburgh International Airport recently opened a suite of "sensory rooms" inside its airside terminal to help travelers on the autism spectrum decompress from the stress of flying. It's one of a handful of airports internationally that have made changes to be more accommodating to people with special needs.
The 1,500-square-foot space in Pittsburgh is quiet, muting the hustle and bustle from the terminal. Designed with input from people who have autism, it features soft furniture and whimsical lighting features, including colorful bubble towers and multiple soundproof rooms. There's also a room designed to replicate an airplane cabin, complete with airplane seats, trays, windows and overhead compartments, so kids and adults can get used to the feeling of sitting on a plane.
Traveling through an airport can be an anxiety-inducing experience for anyone, but for people on the autism spectrum, the sensory bombardment can make the experience even more intense.
"Between smells and sounds and sights and ... announcements — all of that can be alarming for a lot of typical people," says University of Pittsburgh special education professor Rachel Robertson. "But for people with autism, it could be really terrifying."
The space — dubbed Presley's Place — is named for Presley Rudge, the 4-year-old son of Pittsburgh International Airport worker Jason Rudge. Presley has autism and is considered nonverbal.
Rudge, who operates heavy equipment at the airport, pitched the idea for the sensory room to airport CEO Christina Cassotis more than a year ago. Because of Presley's sensory processing issues, flying commercially was not an option for the family. Rudge first encountered a sensory room at Presley's preschool readiness program, where he said his son felt comfortable.
"After that, I'm sitting at work thinking, I wonder if I'll ever be able to go on vacation," Rudge says. "So I said, 'Why don't we put a sensory room in the airport?' "
Published on NPR, August 8, 2019