Pittsburgh International Airport was in the news recently for something very special: the introduction of a new sensory room for passengers with sensory processing needs. The idea came from Jason Rudge, an employee at the airport whose son is diagnosed with autism. He came up with the idea when he saw how beneficial the sensory room at school was to help his son regulate and participate in school activities. At Wesley Family Services, we see similar benefits by incorporating sensory rooms in our programs. These rooms play a role in our Wonder Kids program and Autism Outpatient but can also be utilized by clients in other programs when available. As an organization, we strive to accommodate sensory needs in other ways through the use of adaptive seating, lighting covers, weighted vests, etc. Wesley also supports sensory-friendly events in the community and provides support in any way possible.
There are a few things that I really like about the space at the airport in particular:
- Inside Presley’s Place (the name of the sensory room, named after Jason’s son) there is a replica of an airplane cabin for passengers to become acclimated to the actual look and feel of being on the plane. The replica is made of materials used in a real cabin, and passengers can sit in the seats and experience what it is like to be in the environment of a plane before getting on. This helps individuals prepare and makes the airplane less of an unknown situation for them.
- With the Pit Pass Program, families can come check out the airport, the sensory room, and explore the mock cabin even before the day they are scheduled to fly! This also helps passengers become used to the environment, since going to the airport can be such a large shock to someone’s routine. Giving the time and space for people to get accustomed first can make a world of difference.
- The room is designed in such a way that it is suitable for all ages, not only kids. With guidance from other organizations that have sensory rooms in the area, they found that “less is more.” The room is not too overwhelming with toys, lights, and colors. It provides a comfortable environment that is away from the hustle and bustle of the airport.
- Along with that, the team that put this together seemed to really do their research. Not only did they reach out to facilities in Pittsburgh and other airports that have spaces designated for this purpose, but they also received input from caregivers of individuals with neurodevelopmental diagnoses, which influenced how they created the space. The best way to understand someone else’s needs is to ask them directly. While everyone’s experience is a bit different, in order to learn more we be open-minded and accepting of others.
It is great to see public spaces educating themselves and making their environments more inclusive for all individuals. In keeping with our mission to empower children, adults, and families by providing transformational care, Wesley Family Services is proud to offer sensory rooms at a number of our locations. In a video about the space, Jason shares a great sentiment that I believe really reflects what Sensory Awareness Month is all about. He said, “It’s not about awareness…acceptance. We want to accept everybody that’s different. Just because they look different or act different, they’re no less than us.” We all have certain sensitivities to sensory stimulation, such as nails on a chalkboard, or chewing noises for some. We also have sensory experiences that help calm us, such as massages or listening to music. Sensory Awareness Month is about learning to accept the range of sensory needs experienced by all individuals. The more we learn about others’ experiences that may be different than our own, society as a whole will become a more inclusive and safe space for everyone.
*This article was written by Arianna Bendlin, MT-BC, a music therapist in our Creative Arts Program.