Parents of children with autism face special challenges when traveling. All the things that come with air travel — noise, unpredictability, and an unfamiliar environment — can cause anxiety, fear, and meltdowns. They also have to navigate all this around fellow travelers who might not be sympathetic to autistic kids’ needs or forms of expression. But a recent trend has seen several airports add “sensory rooms” designed specifically for people with autism to be able to decompress and relax. The latest is at the Pittsburgh International Airport and was actually the brainchild of a PIA employee. Jason Rudge is a heavy equipment operator at the airport and father of Presley, a four-year-old with autism. He asked the airport if they would create a room for autistic travelers of all ages in mind, and the result is Presley’s Place.
Opened in July, Presley’s Place is sound-proofed and has places designed both for adults and children with autism. There are also floor cushions, dark cubbies where a child could lay down alone, and bubble tubes, which are frequently included in sensory rooms for their calming effect on people with sensory processing disorders. Additionally, the area features a mock airplane and boarding area so families can practice boarding and getting buckled up before a flight.
Conde Nast Traveler reports that Pittsburgh joins airports like ones in Atlanta, Birmingham, and Ireland offering this service. The TSA has also expanded services to include fliers with autism, including a hotline that all travelers with disabilities can use before a flight. Increased awareness can also hopefully make traveling less stressful. Back in July, a mom’s Facebook post about an act of kindness a stranger showed her son, who is autistic, when he had to fly alone. She said at the time that she hopes the story will help people consider ways that their own gestures can positively affect a child having a hard time. But as much as kind gestures and understanding can help, it is also heartening to see structural changes that also address the needs of people with disabilities, making travel something even more families can enjoy.