Travelers with autism and other special needs now have a space where they can decompress from the stress of flying at Pittsburgh International Airport.
The "sensory space" features soft furniture, whimsical lighting features and a realistic airplane cabin, complete with airplane seat replicas, trays, windows and overhead compartments.
The space – dubbed Presley’s Place – is named for Presley Rudge, the four-year-old son of PIT heavy equipment operator Jason Rudge. Presley has autism and is considered nonverbal, though he can say a couple words in a row.
Traveling through an airport can cause anxiety 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,” said University of Pittsburgh special education professor Rachel Robertson. “But for people with autism, it could be really terrifying.”
Rudge 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 never an option for the family. Rudge first encountered a sensory room at Presley’s preschool readiness program in Greensburg, 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,” he said. “So I said why don’t we put a sensory room in the airport?”
Lu Randall, executive director of Autism Connection of PA, said the organization distributed surveys and held focus groups with people with autism during the development of the space.
"People with autism drove this project from the beginning," Randall said. "This is going to work for a lot of people that need to travel through the airport."
PIT isn't the only U.S. airport with a sensory friendly space, but Cassotis said she believes it's the most comprehensive, in part because of the recreated airplane cabin.
“It’s an amazing opportunity … for kids to get comfortable,” Cassotis said. “What does it mean to put on a seat belt, can we raise and lower the window shade, what about the tray table?”
Pitt’s Robertson said most airports remain generally unfriendly to people with autism, and there’s a long way to go to make travel easier for people with special needs.
“I don’t know whether more families with autism will choose air travel because of Pittsburgh’s room in particular,” Robertson said. “But maybe if it became more of a national trend, that might be something that might make people more open to considering air travel.”
Jason Rudge said he hopes that if families of kids with autism learn about the sensory room at PIT, they’ll feel more empowered to travel.
“You can’t sit at home your whole life and not do anything because you have a child with special needs or an adult living with special needs,” Rudge said. “Now you can go out and travel.”
The sensory room can be found at the end of Concourse A.