The opening of Pittsburgh International Airport’s new sensory-friendly space last week brought tears to Sharon Welty’s eyes.
About two years ago, she was feeling anxious about an upcoming family vacation to Mexico, and reached out to the airport to prepare. Welty, who lives in Greensburg, Pa., has two teenage sons, including 14-year-old Reid, who had been diagnosed with autism.
In response to her message, airport representatives made arrangements to have Reid visit the airport, and even allowed the family to board an aircraft in between flights.
“We sat in the seats to practice what it was going to be like to have a seat belt on,” she said. “I would like to believe that it gave him a sense of calm when we boarded our flight a week or so later. It definitely gave me a sense of calm too. I felt like I was setting my family up for a successful trip.”
With its new sensory-friendly space, Pittsburgh International will be able to offer a similar experience for individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental challenges and their families.
The space features private, soundproof spaces and even includes a realistic airplane cabin experience area, provided by American Airlines and Pittsburgh-based Magee Plastics.
“It’s not only going to be helpful for individuals with autism, but it will also be calming for parents to be able to provide that experience for their kids, and to have a bit more confidence of actually getting on their flights,” said Welty, who was unable to attend the July 23 opening but followed along with photos and videos posted on social media.
Popular WTAE news anchor Kelly Frey was a member of the crowd at the event, but as a mother, not a journalist. Her son Bennett was born with special needs, so the sensory-friendly space is a project very near to her heart.
“Not only does Presley’s Place provide a vital respite for children and adults with autism, but any disability that requires space to stretch out, lay down, decompress and feel safe,” she said. “It was so thoughtfully planned and meticulously built with so much detail and insight.”
The ceremony was also an emotional event for Christina Abernethy, who has an 8-year-old son with autism.
“It’s life-changing for families like ours,” she said. “To give families the ability to experience travel and be able to go places they never thought they could, that just opens up a whole new world for us. It’s personal, and it touches our hearts.”
Abernethy, who is involved in Changing Spaces, a national campaign advocating for adult-sized changing tables, was especially excited to see the airport’s sensory-friendly restroom, after she suggested the feature at one of the airport’s public forums to solicit ideas for the space.
“Having the accessible restroom with adult-sized changing table at the airport means just as much to me as the sensory room. You never know what people are going through, and this accessibility piece brings me to tears,” she said. “It means so much to my family and to the thousands of families that are going to be traveling in and out of the airport.”
The space includes a sensory-friendly restroom with adult changing station and adjustable sink. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)
The 1,500-square-foot space also includes individual rooms with adjustable lighting and calming activities for its visitors.
Dr. Wendy Pardee, CEO of The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, expects that the room will set the standard for airports and other public facilities alike. The institute, a nonprofit organization that works with special-needs families and has sensory rooms of its own, was also involved in the design of the airport space.
“It’s a fantastic space, and so well-thought,” she said. “You can see that there was tremendous care and consideration that went into every aspect from the floor to the ceilings and the walls. That really kind of blew us away, and then to see the support of the community and the families, and hear them talking about how excited they were about this space, was pretty impressive.”
The space is named Presley’s Place, for the son of airport heavy equipment operator Jason Rudge, who came up with the idea for the room and suggested it to CEO Christina Cassotis.
Four-year-old Presley was diagnosed with autism two years ago, and the airport surprised Jason and his wife, Sharon, with the christening of the room at an employee event the week before the room’s official opening.
“I definitely was not expecting that at all,” said Sharon Rudge. “To think that that room will always say ‘Presley’s Place’ – I’m speechless and overwhelmed.”
Even more so, the Rudge family is proud to make a lasting difference for families like their own, she added.
“I’ve never been involved in something so big, and being able to see it come to life, it’s a dream come true. I just really hope that other airports and public places catch on to the idea of a sensory room.”