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Spotlight on: Kaela Millar, Multi-Sensory Lab Technologist


Spotlight on is a special series profiling the faculty and staff at Mohawk who are making a difference at the college and in the community.

In a space no bigger than an average family room there are sights, sounds, smells and things to touch that can transform an agitated or withdrawn person with autism, dementia, brain injury, developmental delays, mental illness or neurological disease.

Mohawk College’s Multi-Sensory Lab provides comfort, stimulation and learning to babies, children, youth, adults and seniors. Additionally the Multi-Sensory Lab is being used as a therapeutic tool with other disciplines such as speech pathology.

“The experience is different for everyone,” said Kaela Millar, the lab’s technologist. “We adapt the environment to work the brain to develop neural pathways and bring about focus. This helps someone who is not in an organized state. Stimulation of the brain can help reorganize.”

The lab opened in 2013 at Mohawk’s Fennell campus as the first multi-sensory room at an Ontario college. It’s entirely customizable. A patient can choose to sit in a massage chair and listen to quiet, relaxing music with soothing lights and colours or swing in a suspended chair while listening to Metallica and while flashing lights and colours.

“The key is that we can match the room to a person’s arousal level. It is a process of immersion in the experience. When the body relaxes, the brain can restore order and this is when learning can occur. Within the Multi-Sensory Lab we aim to reduce stress and increase pleasure.”

One non-verbal young man with autism comes to the lab once a week. He doesn’t ever sleep well except the night after his visits.

“He often arrives at the lab in a heightened state of arousal. He’s bouncing and twirling and his body appears to be in a state of overdrive. The key is to match the speed of the room to the energy level that he is exhibiting and then slowly reduce it. That calms him.”

The room features large bubble tubes that change colour, projected star lights, strands of LED lights formed into a curtain, a spiral wheel of colourful lights and a cushioned wall with various vibrating panels.

“For many who come here, their days are so controlled for them from the minute they get up in the morning to the minute they go to bed at night. Here, they have control. They choose where they want to sit, what colours will be in the room, what they listen to.”
Kaela Millar

Speakers set inside a beanbag chair allow patients to feel music through their bodies. That works well for those with migraines and chronic pain in joints as they are soothed by the vibration of the music. Individuals who are deaf and unable to hear sounds are actually able to feel the music, says Millar. A ladder panel of lights responds to voices, which also helps people who are hard of hearing visualize the sound.

Virtually all of the room’s sensory experiences are in the client’s control.

“For many who come here, their days are so controlled for them from the minute they get up in the morning to the minute they go to bed at night. Here, they have control. They choose where they want to sit, what colours will be in the room, what they listen to.”

But Millar is always observing, responding and modifying the environment. She takes inventory of a patient’s mood and sensory triggers to determine what works and what doesn’t.

“It’s important to have trained staff. This isn’t a playroom. You can’t just leave a person alone to play in a room with everything turned on and expect magic to happen.”

Music is played without lyrics, which Millar says interfere with the neurological effects.

“With lyrics, we are cognitively thinking about them and what they mean. But that’s not the philosophy of multi-sensory rooms. This is about not needing a specific level of cognitive thinking to enjoy an experience,” said Millar.

“Multi-sensory separates the cognitive experience from the purely sensory one.”

The approach was developed by two doctors working at an institute for people with intellectual disabilities in Holland in the late 1970s.

They called it Snoezelen, which is taken from two Dutch words: snufflen meaning to seek out or to explore, and doezelen meaning to relax or to be in a wonderful place.

Millar sees that combination in action every day.

One of the lab’s youngest clients is a 14-month-old boy with cerebral palsy and vision problems. He engages with the vibrating bumpa wall and the fibre optic lights.

“You can just see the joy and glee in him when he’s engaging in the room.”

For a former student with severe anxiety, her time in the lab before classes twice a week soothed her and prepared her to handle her studies.

“She left relaxed enough to be able to take on her day and to actually do her tests and assignments.”

Millar has watched withdrawn clients respond to images projected on to a mesh curtain or to carefully chosen music or to the use of scents like lavender, citrus or peppermint.

Beyond the gains for clients, the goal is to use the lab to train Mohawk’s recreation therapy students. The facility includes a two-way mirror for observation and a classroom space.

Millar was still a student with Mohawk’s recreation therapy program when the lab opened. She had experience with multi-sensory treatment while working on placements at long-term care homes and at a children’s rehabilitation hospital.

When she graduated in April 2014, program coordinator Joanne Brohman asked Millar to build a program that would bring people in to use the lab.

Thanks to Millar’s advocacy, the lab now has extensive partnerships with about a dozen local groups. She’s now applying for a grant through Mohawk’s Applied Research and Innovation in Education Fund to study the physiological, emotional and learning effects of the multi-sensory experience among multiple populations.

Millar, a Grimsby native, graduated with a bachelors degree in child and youth studies from Brock University in 2005. She worked in the field for a few years before deciding to specialize in recreation therapy.

Two of her placements while studying at Mohawk really surprised her.

“I fell in love with seniors. My job now allows me to work with people from birth to the end of life. It’s very special.”

Contact Kaela at:


Spotlight on is written by Freelance writer and editor Meredith MacLeod.

Follow Meredith on Twitter @meredithmacleod

About Mohawk

Mohawk College educates and serves more than 29,500 full-time, part-time, apprenticeship and international students at three main campuses in Hamilton, Ontario and learning hubs across Hamilton through City School by Mohawk, and at the College’s Centre for Aviation Technology at the Hamilton International Airport. Mohawk is among the top five colleges for applied research in Canada. It has been named one of Canada’s greenest employers seven years in a row, holds a GOLD STARS rating from AASHE for sustainability achievements and is home to the country’s largest and first institutional building to receive dual certification for Zero Carbon Building Framework design and performance for The Joyce Centre for Partnership & Innovation. More than 135,000 people have graduated from Mohawk since it was founded.