DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Pittsburgh International Airport recently joined a handful of airports around the world that have dedicated places where people with autism can go to lessen the stress of flying. Kathleen Davis from member station WESA in Pittsburgh reports on these sensory spaces for travelers with special needs.
KATHLEEN DAVIS, BYLINE: Jessica Benham and I walk through Pittsburgh International Airport, making our way to a room at the end of Concourse A. Benham is director of development at the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy and is autistic.
JESSICA BENHAM: As soon as the door closes, all of that background white noise is gone. And it's one of those things that you don't even recognize when you're walking through the airport because it's just background - until you step into a space where all of that's removed. And for me, that's instantly relaxing.
DAVIS: The sensory space opened in late July. It's large and mostly soundproof and is split into multiple rooms filled with soft furniture and whimsical lighting features. There's also a room designed to replicate an airplane cabin, complete with airplane seats, trays, windows and overhead compartments. Travelling through an airport can be stressful for anyone. For people on the autism spectrum, the sensory bombardment can make the experience even more intense. Here's University of Pittsburgh special education professor Rachel Robertson.
RACHEL ROBERTSON: Between, like, smells and sounds and sights and noise with announcements, all of that is - kind of can be alarming for a lot of typical people. But for people with autism, it could be really terrifying, I think.
DAVIS: Jason Rudge pitched the idea for the sensory space. He's a heavy equipment operator at the airport. And he has a-4-year-old son named Presley. Presley is on the autism spectrum and is considered nonverbal, though he can say a few words in a row. I spoke with Rudge inside the main sensory room while Presley watched Mickey Mouse on an iPad. Presley's sensory processing issues can make some experiences really hard. Rudge says the first sensory room he saw was at Presley's preschool readiness program, and he says the room made his son more comfortable there.
JASON RUDGE: After that, I mean, I'm sitting at work thinking, you know, wondering if we'll ever be able to go on vacation. So I said, why don't we put a sensory room in the airport?
DAVIS: He wrote a letter to the airport CEO, Christina Cassotis, and that got the ball rolling. This isn't the first sensory space at an airport - there are at least six, most of them in the U.S. But Cassotis says Pittsburgh's may be the most comprehensive, in part because of the room with the recreated airplane cabin.
CHRISTINA CASSOTIS: It's an amazing opportunity for people to get comfortable, for kids to get comfortable. What does it mean to put on a seatbelt? Can we raise and lower the shade - the window shade? What about the tray table? You know, how does it feel to sit in this seat?
DAVIS: Not only was Presley drawn to that room, his mom, Sharon Rudge, says he was more verbal than usual.
SHARON RUDGE: He really thought he was taking off. He would say, you know, ready, set, go. He would say, three, two, one, blastoff.
DAVIS: Jessica Benham says, in general, there's a long way to go to make travel more accommodating for neurodivergent children and adults. She's helped consult on multiple sensory spaces in Pittsburgh and says, a lot of the time, places don't ask for feedback until rooms are already complete. She says it's clear the Pittsburgh airport team worked closely on the design with people who would use it.
BENHAM: I was expecting a small room with maybe some bean bags and dimmable lights because my expectations had been taught to be low. And so to walk into this space that is enormous and serves a variety of needs, I don't even have the words to say what that means.
DAVIS: Benham says spaces like this give her hope for the next generation of autistic children. For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Davis in Pittsburgh.
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