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Newark Airport Opens Innovative Sensory Room for Neurodiverse Flyers

The soothing sensory room has a nature theme, a fish tank, and access to a calmer security lane

by Lauren Smith

January 9, 2024

Photo: Courtesy of PANYNJ

A new space at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) hopes to be a calming oasis for neurodiverse travelers, with soft lighting, comfortable seating, and an easier path through security.

The sensory room, located before security in Terminal A, was designed with input from experts at the Anderson Center for Autism, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Photo: Courtesy of PANYNJ

Colored carpet conjures a serenely flowing river, sandy banks, and a green forest floor, while posts and a wooden canopy evoke trees.

The 1,000-square-foot room also has a large saltwater fish tank and vibrating bubble tubes filled with water and beads, which offer gentle visual, tactile, and auditory stimulation, so different from the cacophony of the rest of the airport. The lighting is also softer, the seats more comfortable, and speakers project calming sounds.

“When you take an autistic child through an airport, that is tactically and orally defensive. In other words, sound and touch, they don’t know how to respond, and usually their behavior becomes erratic,” said Jeffrey Lynford, Vice Chairman of the Port Authority. Lynford speaks from experience: his daughter has autism.

Photo: Courtesy of PANYNJ

“If you have a ‘timeout place,’ if you have a sensory room, it will really help the entire family deal with travel through the airport,” he said.

“It’s meant to be a calming place that gives you a little bit of a chance to catch your breath before you go through the busy airport environment,” added Sarah McKeon, the Port Authority’s general manager of New Jersey airports.

The room is also the launching pad for a calmer journey through the rest of the airport and into the skies. A TSA officer can meet visitors registered with the TSA Cares program and be escorted to a separate security screening area accessed directly from the sensory room.

The Port Authority is also building a second sensory room airside in Terminal A. This room will have an oceanic theme, with projections of aquatic life, another fish tank, and soothing music. A replica of an airplane cabin featuring two rows of seats, seatbelts, personal screens, and similar lighting will prepare visitors for their upcoming flight.

Photo: Courtesy of PANYNJ

The watery theme of the spaces is no coincidence. Lynford’s wife, Tondra, a trustee of the Anderson Center for Autism, told, “water, the sound of water, and watching things floating in water… are very soothing.”

The designs also fit the wider theme of the $2.7 billion Terminal A, which opened last January and pays tribute to the Garden Station’s ecosystems and landmarks.

Across the world, other airports have opened calming sensory rooms, improving accessibility for neurodiverse travelers. However, Newark’s sensory room is only the second in the New York City region, following a LaGuardia Airport (LGA) space. It “represents a significant stride in making travel less stressful for families like ours,” Tondra Lynford said.

Newark’s sensory room is from 6:00 AM to 10:00 PM, seven days a week.