Air travel is stressful enough, but it can be especially challenging for people with autism and other cognitive disabilities. They can struggle with disruptions in routine, waiting in line and the increased stimulation of a new environment.
To make flying more accessible for these travelers, Pittsburgh International Airport is building a sensory-friendly room that will provide a calming space for those who need to de-escalate before boarding a flight.
The idea for a sensory room came from an airport employee, Jason Rudge, whose 3-year-old son Presley has autism. When Presley was 2, he entered a preschool readiness program that had a sensory room.
“Presley struggled being in the classroom with the other kids, but the sensory room made it so much easier. He was able to calm down and go back into the playgroup,” said Rudge, a heavy equipment operator at PIT. “I didn’t think he’d be able to make it through the entire program, but that sensory room made all the difference.”
It occurred to Rudge that having a similar room at the airport would make it easier for families with autistic children to travel.
“A caregiver for a kid with autism might think ‘I’m never going to be able to fly anywhere with my family — it’s too hard to travel with someone with autism,’” he said. “Having a sensory room at the airport changes that thinking to ‘Maybe we can take that trip after all.’”
To develop the project, the airport brought together advocacy groups, individuals and caregivers of children with neurodevelopmental challenges, to share their experiences and offer suggestions for the sensory room.
The participants had a lot of ideas: Make it soundproof, serving both children and adults, with a variety of comfy seating and adjustable features to meet individuals’ various needs.
Amina Ammoura, whose family has a long history of working at the airport, participated in the sensory room discussions. A mother of a 4-year-old son with autism, she was thrilled to hear the airport was building a sensory room to help families like hers.
“This means so much to me in so many ways, to have some of my ideas implemented in the sensory room,” said Ammoura, formerly of Oakmont, Pa. “For me to be able to add my piece of idea to where my family worked daily, in my hometown airport where I visit every few months, is a proud accomplishment of mine of being an autism advocate.”
Ammoura, who now resides in Centreville, Va., and travels back to Pittsburgh every three months or so to visit family, said the sensory room answers a stressful question that parents of special-needs kids ask themselves even before buying a plane ticket: How can I prepare my child so they are on their best behavior on the airplane?
“Having this space will let the person have extra time to breathe and gather knowledge about the airplane environment before getting onto the real airplane,” she added. “Having this time and space helps prevent people with special needs from throwing a tantrum, screaming loudly or having other such behaviors, which can be disturbing and raise concerns in the public eye, especially to those not educated about different disabilities.”
The Pittsburgh-based Hillman Foundation and other charitable organizations, along with American Airlines and other corporations, have pledged support for the sensory room with nearly $540,000 in contributions that also include specialized equipment and furnishings like adult changing tables. Total cost for completing the room is expected to exceed $900,000.
The room will be located in Concourse A in Pittsburgh International Airport’s airside terminal. Construction will start in early 2019, and is expected to be completed within the year.