Getting on a plane and going on family vacations can seem normal to some, but for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum, this can be a dream. Starting Wednesday July 23rd, the Pittsburgh International Airport is helping make this dream a reality for families impacted by autism, by opening up one of the world’s largest airport sensory spaces.
Known as “Presley’s Place”, the state of the art sound-proof sensory room comes equipped with a collection of bubble tubes with calming lights, bathrooms with adult-sized changing tables, and private areas for families to relax in before their flight. The room also provides a realistic airplane experience, with real seats, overhead bins and working lights.
“It was made using all of the materials used in a real jet cabin and has all of the functions featured on an airplane,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of the airport, to Today. “It gets kids and adults acclimated.” The plane cabin and seating was generously donated by American Airlines and Magee Plastics.
The idea for this revolutionary room came from Jason Ridge, a seven-year employee of the airport. Ridge’s son Presley, for whom the room is named after, is four-years-old and has autism. Ridge and his wife Sharon learned the importance and impact of sensory rooms when Presley was just two-years-old. Ridge told Today, “The difference was like night and day after he [Presley] went into a sensory room; He’d come out of the sensory room and be ready to interact with others.”
Given Ridge’s experience in the role of a heavy equipment operator and as a parent of a child with autism, he did the research surrounding sensory rooms and presented it to Cassotis. “I wasn’t surprised I was able to get into her [Cassotis] office by writing her that note,” he told TribLive, “The hardest thing was believing in myself this could happen.”
Cassotis was quickly onboard with the idea, as the airport pushes the ideal that flying should be accessible to all. “It’s incredibly important that we are able to welcome all the passengers here who want to be here and we want to give them the best experience before they get on the airplane,” Cassotis said to Today. “We see this as an enormous public service and opportunity. It’s going to make things better for families and for their fellow passengers.”
Pittsburgh International Airport’s renovation is one of many being made to provide a more inclusive experience to individuals on the autism spectrum. Other airports in Birmingham and Atlanta have also joined the movement, as well as the Gatwick International Airport near London. “Presley’s Place” is located in Concourse A near gate 39 and is available at all hours. With the airports’ Pit Pass Program, families can visit the sensory space weeks and even months in advance to prepare for an upcoming flight and get acclimated before taking off.