Flying can be stressful – especially for people with special needs.
But for four years now, some of them have found solace in Presley’s Place – a private space designed for people with sensory sensitivity to unwind before flights.
Jason Rudge, a heavy equipment operator at Pittsburgh International Airport, wrote a letter in 2017 that brought Presley’s Place to life. The space is named after Rudge’s son, who is autistic.
When Rudge realized the lack of resources available for autistic passengers, he knew something needed to change. After conducting some research, he sent a letter to PIT CEO Christina Cassotis suggesting opening a sensory room at the airport. She reached out to him immediately.
“Being a parent with a special needs child, you’re kind of forgotten about,” Rudge said. “To have somebody that’s going to strive for the other families or push for inclusion, it feels so good.”
Presley’s Place, which has received national recognition, is part of Pittsburgh International Airport’s focus on accessibility and travel for all. That includes a variety of initiatives aimed at helping travelers with disabilities – key programs to highlight during Disability Pride Month, which is observed each July.
Earlier this year, PIT implemented the Sunflower Program, which supports hidden disabilities that people can’t see like anxiety disorders, autism and chronic pain. (Photo by April Laukaitis)
Pups and sunflowers
Disability Pride Month honors the accomplishments of people with disabilities and celebrates diversity. The goal is to make the disability community’s voices heard while also recognizing their societal struggles and working toward accessibility for all.
Elise Gomez, Manager of Customer Experience at the airport, said that PIT is working to expand accessibility measures to provide equitable access to those with all kinds of special needs.
Earlier this year, PIT implemented the Sunflower Program, which supports hidden disabilities that people can’t see like anxiety disorders, autism and chronic pain. Passengers can visit the Information Desk at the airport to receive a sunflower tag so airport staff know they may need additional support. It’s a discreet way for them to feel more comfortable and confident when they fly.
To help passengers who struggle with anxiety surrounding airports or planes, the airport developed PIT PAWS (Pups Alleviating Worry and Stress).
The pups sporting the blue bandanas throughout the airport are all trained therapy dogs that are part of the PIT PAWS team, and passengers who need extra comfort or support before their flights are welcome to spend time with the dogs.
Gomez explained that the dogs have been a great addition to the airport because they often bring people “a sense of home.”
“The airport is a busy environment with lots of people and noises, so travel can be extra stressful,” Gomez said. “We’re really here to provide a smile on people’s faces.”
PIT PAWS are trained therapy dogs who help comfort passengers that struggle with anxiety surrounding airports and airplanes. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)
Presley’s Place, an Industry Model
Still, it’s Presley’s Place that has garnered national attention.
Fast Company magazine recognized PIT for its innovations in the travel industry, with Presley’s Place in addition to developing an app in cooperation with Carnegie Mellon University that helps blind travelers navigate the terminal.
Lucinda Randall, President of Autism Connection, assisted in designing Presley’s Place. Randall made it a priority to discuss the room’s features with people with autism before the building process even started.
“The room had a mission statement from the start, and that was to be a pass-through space for all ages and abilities and to help people get and stay stable before or after flying,” Randall said. “We designed it to be a calming, peaceful place with natural colors – tans and blues chosen by autistic people – that also keeps travelers connected to the outside.”
Randall explained that she worked with the airport to bring soundproof tiles, relaxing lights and chairs that rock and recline into Presley’s Place. These features are designed to regulate an overstimulated nervous system. The room also has an adult-sized changing table.
Four years later, Rudge is still impressed by the continuous impact Presley’s Place has made. Presley, who’s now 8 years old, visited the space again earlier this year. Rudge said his son was extremely proud of Presley’s Place, and he was excited to show it off to his friends.
“It was really nice to see that and the change he made for PIT,” Rudge said. “When you see the people who use it, it’s just amazing.”