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A Perfect Place for Presley Airport staffer's son inspires unparalleled sensory space at Pittsburgh International Airport

By Samantha Stedford

Jason and Sharon Rudge knew there was something different about their son, Presley, at an early age.

“We started noticing signs when he was around 18 months old,” Jason said. “He didn’t make great eye contact or focus on us, and his speech was delayed. He would flap his hands when he got excited.”
Jason Rudge, a heavy equipment operator at Pittsburgh International Airport, smiles at his son, Presley at a recent airport employee event. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

At 2, Presley was diagnosed with autism. Because it affects his ability to communicate verbally, his autism is considered severe.

The Rudges were devastated. “I had made a lot of bad choices in my life up to that point,” Jason said. “I kept thinking, ‘Why is this happening? Is this a punishment for the mistakes I’ve made?’”
Sharon Rudge poses for a photo with her four-year-old son, Presley. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

But as Jason began to transform his life to care for Presley, his thinking changed.

“I became a stronger person, a better person,” he said. “Everything I do now is for him and because of him. I want to make sure he has the best life possible.”

The Rudges enrolled Presley in a preschool readiness program. At first, he struggled to stay in the classroom with the other kids. But the school had a sensory room, and it helped Presley calm down and go back into the play group.

That’s when Rudge, a heavy equipment operator at Pittsburgh International Airport, had his epiphany: Why not build a sensory room in the airport to make it easier for people with autism and their caregivers to travel?

“Parents who have a kid with autism are afraid of how others will react if their kid starts acting out or has a meltdown, especially since many people don’t understand autism,” said Rudge. Going shopping or out to eat can be overwhelming, and planning a trip with air travel involved can be especially daunting.

He did some research, wrote a proposal to PIT CEO Christina Cassotis and dropped it in one of the employee suggestion boxes located throughout the airport. When Cassotis read the letter, she called him immediately.

“Acting on Jason’s idea to build a sensory room at the airport was a no-brainer,” said Cassotis. “It fits so well into our vision: to transform our airport, to serve the community, inspire the industry and advance our region as a world leader.”
PIT CEO Christina Cassotis (left) poses for a photo with the Rudge family. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

The result, named in honor of Presley and unveiled to the public on July 23, sets a new standard for airports providing services to children and adults for whom travel can be stressful and debilitating.

“The best practice right now for airports looking into sensory rooms is to stick their heads out of the rabbit hole and see what everybody else is doing,” said Eric Lipp, executive director of Open Doors Organization, which works extensively with airports and airlines to improve the travel experience for people with disabilities. “It’s so early in the game—what Pittsburgh International Airport is doing is different and they’re a leader in this space.”

Less is More

Under Cassotis’ direction, a group of airport employees got to work designing the multi-room Presley’s Place. The team visited local sensory rooms at Children’s Hospital of UPMC, the Children’s Institute and JW Burkett Elementary School. They talked with employees at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and Ireland's Shannon airports, at the time the only two airports in the world with spaces designated for travelers with sensory-processing issues.

“This is still very new for airports,” said Logan Williams, PIT’s organizational development manager, who led the project. “We realized we had an opportunity to innovate and create a model for other airports to follow.”
Logan Williams (right) discusses plans for the sensory room during the construction process. Williams led the project as PIT’s organizational development manager. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

The team did its homework, asking advocacy groups, interested individuals and caregivers of children with neurodevelopmental challenges to share their experiences and offer suggestions for the sensory space.

“The input we received completely changed how we were thinking about the room,” said Williams.

The airport originally planned a space filled with cool toys and fancy equipment to engage the kids. But what they heard from the stakeholders was that less is more—if the room is too stimulating, parents won’t be able to pull their kids away when it’s time to catch the flight.

Also, why make it just for kids? Adults with the same needs would benefit from a space to decompress before and after flying.

“What we heard over and over again is that the room needed to be flexible and have the ability to be customized to meet the various needs of these travelers,” Williams said. “We were determined to do it right.”

For Rudge, the opening of the sensory space is a dream come true.

“I’ve never done anything that has impacted so many people,” said Rudge. “I hope that when Presley gets older, he’ll understand that I did this for him and he’ll feel proud.”

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