When Pittsburgh International Airport opened its industry-leading sensory room, named Presley’s Place after her son with autism, Sharon Rudge was overwhelmed with happiness, but she still had one wish.
“I just really hope that other airports and public places catch on to the idea of a sensory room,” she said.
More than two years later, Sharon and her husband Jason, a heavy equipment operator at the airport who submitted the initial idea for a space for people with sensory sensitivities, are still advocating for wider adoption of the special rooms.
A planned trip to Disneyland after the room opened in July 2019 was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, so the family recently visited the 1,500-square-foot Presley’s Place for the first time since its opening.
Presley is now a happy 6-year-old who loves bananas, helps his mom carry her purse and knows his colors, and he’s still rocking his signature mohawk. He cavorted through the space, hugging the bubble tubes and refamiliarizing himself with the mock airplane cabin.
When Presley’s Place opened, it received international attention from advocates, caregivers and families who lauded PIT’s efforts to make air travel easier for those with sensory sensitivities and other special needs.
Since then, the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which operates PIT, has worked with other facilities interested in building their own sensory rooms to demonstrate how important these types of amenities can be.
A few months after Presley’s Place was introduced, Jenderal Ahmad Yani International Airport in Thailand and Dublin International Airport in Ireland opened their own dedicated sensory spaces. Last year, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport created one as well.
And in April, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport unveiled its own sensory room.
“We set an ambitious goal to be the most accessible airport in North America because it matters to us that SEA meets the needs of the people we serve,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Stephanie Bowman in a release. “These rooms play an important role in helping us be the airport we want to be.”
And it’s not just airports that see Presley’s Place as a blueprint for public facilities to copy.
The nonprofit Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation in Australia highlighted the PIT room not long after it opened in a presentation to a forum on rail accessibility.
“The benefits of facilities like Presley’s Place also extend beyond those directly using the space, positively impacting passengers and staff within that transport environment,” wrote Andrew Meier, executive director and CEO of the nonprofit.
Such efforts come as welcome news to the Rudges, who are grateful their son was honored by PIT. But the message has always been about much more than Presley and Pittsburgh.
“Just because it has his name on it – I think that every child or individual with special needs, their name’s on this room as well,” Jason Rudge said.