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Mohawk's Multi-sensory Room

Mohawk’s multi-sensory room impact to be measured in ARIE project first

By Tiffany Mayer

Anecdotally, Kaela Millar can tell you the transformations she’s seen happen at the multi-sensory lab at Mohawk College.

As the college’s only qualified multi-sensory lab technologist, Millar can share stories about the leisurely, companion-building sessions with residents of a local supportive housing program that have happened in the lab. There have been people with cerebral palsy, whose body movements and tremors slow significantly after just 10 minutes in the room. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or speech and language issues have used the lab’s colourful bubble tubes to indicate their favourite hues. Some of them have even been compelled to tell Millar with words instead of their usual gestures. One boy with ASD, who has been visiting the lab for over two years, has poor sleep patterns. The nights following a session with Millar are his most restful, his mother says. She’s also helped people with brain injuries to relax and, she thinks, potentially begin the process of healing by matching music and projected images to help develop new neurological pathways.

“Your brain wants to be organized so it’s constantly trying to find patterns (in visuals and music). They’re synching together,” Millar said. “There is so much more going on at a deeper and scientific level in the individuals that use the multi-sensory environment than what one sees on the surface.”

Yet all of the benefits that have happened on her watch are rooted in personal experience and observation — either Millar’s or her subject’s — rather than systemic scientific evaluation. There are no numbers to back up the incredible changes she’s witnessed in visitors to the lab.

Millar wants to change that. With the help of an Applied Research and Innovation in Education (ARIE) grant, and the support and vision of Neil McMahon, Mohawk’s interim Dean for the School of Community, Justice and Interdisciplinary studies, she intends to find quantitative data to support the benefits of multi-sensory environments.

She plans to use the blood pressure and heart rates of adults diagnosed with at least one officially documented disability as benchmarks to determine whether multi-sensory environments positively impact them in physiological ways. And if so, she will look for trends indicating the disabilities most positively impacted by time spent in the multi-sensory lab.

“No two experiences in that room, even with the same person, are ever the same,” Millar said. “One day someone might start out in the lab feeling anxious, other days they’re not. And you’re not always following the same protocol for everyone, so you don’t have the same baseline. That’s the difficult thing.”

The multi-sensory lab at Mohawk looks a little like a cross between a 1970s rec room and an art installation. It’s equipped with a massage chair with built-in speakers to allow individuals to feel music, a hanging lounger and a bean bag chair. It has black lights, soft lights, music and mood-lifting aromatherapy scents. There are mirrors on the walls. A disco ball even hangs from the ceiling.

In one corner, a brightly coloured sensory wall beckons. In another, it’s two large bubble tubes. If Millar dims the lights, she can project images on a white wall and have them keep time with music.

If she were to flip the switch on every element, it would be sensory overload. But through observation of visitors to the lab, Millar carefully facilitates the environment and the features are controlled to suit their needs.

“It’s really using the environment to alter states, moods, arousal levels, anxiety, all those things,” Millar explained.

She became passionate about the use and benefits of multi-sensory environments while studying recreation therapy at Mohawk. Millar used a portable version of the lab for bedside programming at a long-term care facility during her practicum and saw how residents responded to it.

Many social agencies and schools have multi-sensory environments, but without the kind of hard and fast numbers that Millar wants to find in her research, they’re often used improperly, she said.

“They put children in there, turn everything on and it turns into a playground. But it’s actually a very controlled environment and it’s controlled by the user either directly or through quiet observation done by the facilitator.”

She hopes her findings will serve as that much-needed baseline for more informed use of multi-sensory environments, and for further study of their benefits. Her ultimate goal is to see if she can positively affect blood pressure and heart rate in her study participants, and simply improve their well-being.

“It’s not just a leisure activity. It’s doing more,” Millar said. “It’s physically impacting the body and there are so many implications. Are there other environments and populations that could use these? What about jails? The big implication is that if we have evidence that shows this has a physiological impact, it can lead to funding for certification in the use of multi-sensory environments, and get them being used in more meaningful ways.”

Tiffany Mayer is a freelance writer based in Niagara. She’s writing a series of articles about applied research and innovation at Mohawk College.

For more information about this and other ARIE projects, contact iDeaWORKS at ideaworks@mohawkcollege.ca