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North Hills Monthly

Presley’s Place at Pittsburgh Airport Provides Safe Space for those with Sensory Issues

Nov 29, 2019 12:00PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Presley enjoying the airport's new sensory room.

When Jason Rudge saw how his son Presley, who is autistic, benefited greatly from a sensory room at his preschool readiness program, he realized that the airport would also be a good location for a similar calming space.

“I know how overwhelming a flight can be for people with special needs, so I put a letter in the CEO’s mailbox,” said Rudge, a heavy equipment operator with the field maintenance department at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Not long after, CEO Christina Cassotis called Rudge into her office and told him that the room was a go. “I was overwhelmed with joy,” he recalled.

True to her word, 18 months later in July of 2019, Pittsburgh International Airport opened a state-of-the-art sensory room near Gate A9. Named Presley’s Place in honor of Rudge’s son, the 1,500 sq. ft. space exceeded Rudge’s dreams. 

Presley’s Place is actually a suite of six rooms: foyer, family room, three individual rooms, quiet room, and airplane experience. 

“It is all about transition for people who have challenges such as autism; the rooms are specifically designed to transition from the loud terminal, to the foyer, to soundproof rooms to the airplane experience. A separate exit can take them back into the terminal,” explained Project Lead Logan Williams, organizational development manager with the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

The foyer of the sensory room includes an interactive map of the whole airport as well as a map of the sensory room, and travelers can check their flight status from the room, eliminating the need to return to the terminal. The airport even constructed a sensory friendly bathroom that includes an adult changing table and adjustable sink.

In order to create the space, Williams’ team worked with a cross-functional group of advisors and gathered input from public advocacy meetings about what should be in a sensory room. The team then came up with a design with the help of Hayes Design Group, and after they secured funding, construction began in early 2019. The project was constructed entirely in-house by airport employees. 

Williams said that many people don’t realize that an airport is the perfect place for a sensory room. “Airports are like mini-cities; people don’t realize how overstimulating they can be,” he explained.

He calls Presley’s Place ‘…simplistic, yet highly customized.” Rather than being overstimulating, the room has calming colors and features and is completely soundproof. It is also fully accessible for those with physical disabilities.

“One feature we included in our room is bubble tubes, which are the most common feature in sensory rooms,” said Williams of the tubes that feature constantly moving, color-changing bubbles to encourage interaction. “We also created little crawl spaces with microfiber carpet in the ceiling to make visitors feel like they’re engulfed in the stars.”

Other features include fabrics on the walls that reproduce different textures and feelings; bean bag chairs and other sensory specific furniture; and padded walls in the individual rooms. A separate, quiet room is geared toward adults, with tables, chairs, and an adult rocking chair.

“The last piece of the sensory room is the airplane experience, which allows individuals to feel, see and know what the airplane is going to look like by reproducing a fully functioning airplane cabin,” said Williams. This component was donated by American Airlines and replicates the interior of the plane down to the overhead compartments and seatbelts. It even includes an authentic jet bridge.

For a sense of calm, most of the colors are muted, other than splashes of blue to replicate the sky. “The lighting is all adjustable and dimmed. In the ceiling tile, we have cloud coverings to make it seem as if you’re looking at the clouds,” said Williams.

Presley’s Room is open to the public but users must get buzzed in to be granted entry. Nonticketed passengers who wish to bring their children who have autism to the airport can do so with a myPITpass.

Before the project, only a few other airports in the world had something similar. The first one was in Shannon in Ireland, and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport has one as well. Williams said that because of its scope, Presley’s Place is the first of its kind in any airport in the world, and other airports have since reached out to get advice.

“This is really about our airport wanting to be more accommodating to allow people the chance and privilege to fly. Our vision is to be a leader in aviation and inspire the industry and the community,” said Williams.

Customer feedback to date has all been positive, and perhaps no one is more thrilled than Rudge—and Presley. He loves everything about the room and enjoyed exploring it at the grand opening. “We will be planning a vacation now; for every flight out of Pittsburgh we take, we’ll be using that room,” said Rudge.

He added, “Without Christina Cassotis and Presley, there wouldn’t be a room. I didn’t create the room; I’m just his voice. I hope someday he understands that it is named after him.”

To learn more, check out the video of the grand opening of Presley’s Place: