Pittsburgh International Airport took steps towards becoming more autism-friendly this month, with the introduction of a special, state-of-the-art sensory room to accommodate children with autism. Titled “Presley’s Place,” the area covers 1,500 square feet, and includes a transitional entrance, individual and family rooms, an area for adults, and an “airplane experience,” featuring a cabin, seats, overhead bins, and a jetway.
According to a Washington Post report this month, the sensory room was suggested by Pittsburgh International Airport employee Jason Rudge, whose two-year-old son Presley has recently been diagnosed with autism. Rudge says the sensory room has already helped his son by calming him and preparing him for interaction with other children. The concept of a sensory room was suggested to Rudge by one of Presley’s teachers, though it was Rudge who thought his own workplace might be an ideal location.
Rudge pitched the idea of the sensory room in a 2017 letter to Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cossotis.
“As we know, an airport can be a fast-moving, busy and loud environment,” Rudge wrote. “I also believe that if Pittsburgh International Airport had a sensory room, it would ease the minds of customers knowing that there is a place for their children to go if needed.”
As noted by the Washington Post, the new space is part of a growing trend among airports, airlines, hotels, and other tourist attractions to accommodate travelers with autism and their family members. In 2016, for example, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport opened a multisensory room for children on the autism spectrum. In 2017, a similar room was opened by Ireland’s Shannon Airport, with London’s Gatwick Airport following suit in 2018 with a space “designed for passengers with autism, dementia, cognitive impairments,” or other diagnoses. This year, Alabama’s Burmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport introduced a “sensory-inclusive room” for travelers. Other programs, such as Wings for Autism, familiarize autistic participants with flights by allowing them to get a boarding pass, go through security, and board the plane. Organized by the non-profit ARC, Wings for Autism now has over 150 events in 65 airports across the country.
According to Cassiotis, no programs were in place for individuals with autism at Pittsburgh International Airport prior to the creation of the sensory room. Following Rudge’s suggestion, executives created a team consisting of advocacy groups, parents, and people on the autism spectrum. The team examined what other public facilities, such as hospitals and airports, had already done to accommodate children with autism.
Travelers can access the PIA sensory room by calling the airport’s operation department to receive an access code. The airport allows people who aren’t flying to go past security through the MyPITpass program, which means future travelers could visit the space in advance.
Jessica Benham, director of development at the Pittsburgh Center for Autism Advocacy and an autistic person herself, was involved in planning the area. According to the Washington Post, Benham suggested the space feature different kinds of sensory experiences, not only for those who preferred quiet, but for those who preferred to express themselves through loud sounds or motions. She said it was important for the area to be geared not only towards children, but adults with autism as well. She added that the thought and consideration invested in Presley’s place should serve as a model for other airports in the United States and around the world.
“If I lived a little closer to the airport, I would, frankly, go there just to hang in the space,” she was quoted as saying. “It’s that cool.”