Jason and Presley Rudge at Pittsburgh airport. Photo courtesy of PIA.

For many Pittsburghers, a day of airplane travel is a relatively easy lift: Assuming the lines aren’t too long at security, your flight is on time and your bags arrive at your destination, flying is often a smooth and simple experience.

But for those with autism and other sensory challenges, busy airports and noisy airplanes can be incredibly stressful — and even keep them from ever flying at all. The same goes for those who have a fear of flying.

Beginning today, Pittsburgh International Airport offers a sensory-friendly space where travelers with special needs can decompress while traveling and get acclimated to flying inside a real plane cabin before actually boarding.

The suite is named Presley’s Place, in honor of the young Pittsburgher who inspired it.

Presley checks out the calming bubble tubes in the sensory-friendly suite. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh International Airport.

Presley Rudge is the 4-year-old son of airport heavy machinery operator Jason Rudge. Jason wrote to Pittsburgh airport CEO Christina Cassotis after noticing that his son was helped by a sensory-friendly room at his preschool. He realized that the same techniques and room design could be used to help travelers of all ages cope with the sometimes overwhelming stimulation of air travel.

“A caregiver for a kid with autism might think ‘I’m never going to be able to fly anywhere with my family — it’s too hard to travel with someone with autism,’” Rudge explained in an announcement about Presley’s Place. “Having a sensory room at the airport changes that thinking to ‘Maybe we can take that trip after all.’”

Cassotis approved the project as soon as she received Rudge’s suggestion, and work began on planning the space.

Project leaders collaborated with advocacy groups, individuals and caregivers of kids with neurodevelopmental challenges. Funding included support from the Allegheny County Airport Authority Charitable Foundation, American Airlines, Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, Magee Plastics and the Hillman Family Foundations.

Airport CEO Christina Cassotis and Jason Rudge unveil what is now the most comprehensive sensory-friendly airport suite in the world.

The suite, located in Concourse A, offers a calming transition foyer, a room with soft furniture where families can decompress together, individual rooms with tubes filled with bubbles and a calming area for adults. All of these spaces are fully soundproof, making them a respite from the normal hubbub of the airport’s terminals.

The 1,500-square-foot Presley’s Place also includes a replica of a jetway and the interior of an airplane. Travelers can spend time there before a flight to get comfortable with the jetway, the plane’s seats and the lighting.

The replica jetway and airplane cabin are connected to the sensory room, but they can also be accessed through a separate door. So the airport can use the space to hold classes for first-time flyers who have concerns about flying.

Although similar spaces are available in other airports, Presley’s Place is now the most comprehensive sensory airport suite in the world.

“This has been a multi-year process with engagement from more than 40 organizations and lots of parents,” Cassotis said. “We want to make flying accessible to everyone.”

Melissa Rayworth

Kidsburgh Editor Melissa Rayworth specializes in stories about culture, gender, design and parenting. She has written for a variety of outlets in the U.S. and Asia, and is a frequent contributor to The Associated Press. Find a selection of her work at melissarayworth.pressfolios.com.