Americans are more stressed than they have been in the past. In 2015, 24% of adults reported they were highly stressed, as compared to 18% a year prior. However, that same year, U.S. residents took 1.7 billion leisure trips — so even though a lot of Americans aren’t using their vacation days, it seems that some are still managing to get away.
But travel itself can be overwhelming and exhausting, particularly for those on the autism spectrum. Now, airports across the country — and across the globe — are making an effort to accommodate these passenger with the creation of quiet sensory rooms within their terminals.
For nearly 70 years, play therapy has helped children, like those with autism, communicate without words. The quiet play rooms launched by participating airports are intended to serve both children and adults with neurodevelopmental challenges. They provide a calm respite from the chaos of the hub; they’re filled with soothing activities and are specifically designed to be a quiet space for anxiety reduction.
At the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Delta Airlines premiered their multisensory room last year as part of a partnership The Arc, an autism advocacy group. Located in the airport’s F Concourse, the space features a bubbling water sculpture, touchable activity panel, and even a miniature ball pit.
The quiet room at the Myrtle Beach airport is right at baggage claim, allowing kids to decompress under a caregiver’s supervision while bags are retrieved. While not as interactive as the room at the Atlanta airport, it was designed with help from local activists from the Champion Autism Network. The airport also ran a program that offers a realistic run-through for kids with autism and sensory processing disorder of what it’s like to get on a plane. Programs like these help kids to know what to expect and can reduce anxiety during an actual trip.
Both of these spaces opened in April of last year. April is Autism Awareness Month, so these airports picked an appropriate time to launch these inclusive features.
But these sensory rooms are not gaining popularity just in the United States. Over in the U.K., airport quiet spaces are popping up, too.
In southwestern Ireland, Shannon Airport opened a sensory room, situated off of the departure lounge, at the end of last month. This room features color-changing lights and a wavy wall to soothe anxious kids with autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions. And London’s Heathrow Airport opened a quiet room a few years ago as part of their family lounge. While it wasn’t specifically designed for those with autism, it’s a calm space open for any family to use.
Because children with autism are easily overstimulated by light, sounds, crowds, and even smells, the airport can be particularly challenging for these families. Parents may also deal with judgment from those who don’t understand the logistics of the situation.
Becky Large, who works with Champion Autism Network and has a child with autism, said one of the goals of creating these quiet spaces was to increase understanding pertaining to the behaviors of children with these conditions.
“Many times when we leave the house with our kids, people look at you like you’re a horrible parent,” she said. “It results in a lot of judgment. Many people stay home. Our mission is to have them come out and play with us.”