This article will take a closer look at heightened olfactory sensitivity or a stronger-than-usual sense of smell. We'll also cover the effects of olfactory sensitivity in children with autism and how you can help them manage these symptoms.
What is the olfactory system?
The olfactory system is responsible for the sense of smell. This system picks up different smells in the air through the nose and nasal cavity and then sends signals, or information, to your brain.
Your brain then processes the smells and interprets them based on what it already knows. The brain plays a large role in the workings of the olfactory system.
Like our other senses, scents are associated with certain memories and emotions we have. We may associate a smell with a certain time in our life or food. It is an individual experience, as these associations are specific to each person.
Do children with autism have a heightened sense of smell?
Many studies have been conducted to determine whether children with autism experience a heightened sense of smell or hypersensitivity.
A 2018 study found that people with autism use different areas of the brain to translate scents than neurotypical people.
Because studies have shown that children with autism may have a heightened sense of smell, it follows that they have a heightened olfactory system that regulates those smells.
For some children on the autism spectrum, a foul smell can be detected from longer distances, and the reaction will be avoidance. While others will actively seek out strong smells from people or things they enjoy.
Research is ongoing to better understand hypersensitivity in autistic individuals and how often it occurs.
What effect can a stronger sense of smell have?
Hypersensitivity to smell can impact a person and their ability to function. A child on the autism spectrum may notice scents that you cannot, coupled with impairments in their ability to communicate; hypersensitivity may be expressed through unusual behaviors.
Experiencing the world differently from those around them can prove challenging for a child with autism in their daily lives and social interactions.
As an adult with autism, a heightened olfactory system can make it hard to function in public spaces, during a commute, or the workplace.
Children with autism may have challenges in a variety of settings, including:
Difficulty going to restaurants
It can be difficult for children with autism and a heightened sense of smell to go to a restaurant because there are so many different scents in that space.
From the unfamiliar smells of strangers to the variety of foods and beverages being served, it can be overstimulating for a child with hypersensitivity to smells.
The type of restaurant, how busy it is, and the environment should all be considered when going to a new restaurant. These factors can impact how the child will react to being in the restaurant.
Overt stimming reactions
Stimming is short for self-stimulating behaviors. Stimming is repetitive or unusual movements or noises, including flapping hands, headbanging, or rocking.
Not exclusive to those on the autism spectrum, stimming is associated with autism. A stim in a neurotypical person may be nail-biting, hair twirling, or shaking your foot. These actions help autistic individuals manage emotions and find comfort when experiencing sensory overload.
Needing to smell comforting smells to calm down or help attach to a caregiver
Children with autism may need the comforting smells of caregivers or a toy to maintain calm. This can cause limitations in the ways children interact with others, as they crave only specific smells.
May be distracted by smells unnoticeable to the neurotypical person
Children with autism may be bothered by smells that may not be noticeable to the neurotypical brain.
Strong unfamiliar odors, perfumes, or cleaning products may cause the hypersensitive child to act out due to sensory overload and lack of communication skills. In a classroom setting, the child with autism may have trouble focusing while their brain is processing smells no one else notices.
For the sensory-seeking child, certain smells may distract them as they seek to get closer to the scent.
May act out or refuse to enter an area with uncomfortable scents
Entering a new space with unfamiliar smells, such as a friend’s home, doctor’s office, shop, or restaurant, may bring an intense reaction in the child with autism.
He or she may be extremely bothered by the strong-to-them scents and react by stimming (repetitive behavior such as flapping arms), lashing out, or running away.
How to help a child with a hypersensitive sense of smell?
Hypersensitivity to smell in a child on the autism spectrum makes ordinary, everyday scents into strong, intense ones. Common smells, such as spicy foods, scented shampoos, or gasoline, can overwhelm a child. They may refuse to eat certain foods, avoid certain places, or display unusual behaviors.
Some of the simplest ways to aid the hypersensitive child are using only fragrance-free cleaning products, avoiding scented candles, perfumes, and deodorants, keeping rooms well ventilated and offering a tissue or other face-covering covering the nose.
For the sensory-seeking child, carry a piece of fabric with a favorite scent and cook flavorful meals.
When you work with your child to help identify the source of their reactions, you can create solutions to help them feel safe and comfortable.
There are some tools and therapies you may want to try with your child:
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a strategy designed to help hypersensitive children increase their communication skills.
Working with a trained ABA therapist, your child can learn language and communication skills. They may benefit from improved attention, focus, and social skills. ABA therapy helps with memory and academics and can decrease problem behaviors.
ABA therapy is flexible and individualized, with positive reinforcement as one of its core tenets.
Studies on long-term ABA therapy show many positive gains in intellectual functioning, language development, daily living, and social skills.
Sensory Support Tools
Sensory support tools are toys and other items designed to stimulate one or more senses. They appeal to some children on the autism spectrum as they can help the child feel calm and supply the sensory experience they are seeking, which can regulate their sensory needs.
Some support tools to consider are weighted vests or blankets, wiggle cushions, and balance boards. Sensory support toys include fidget spinners, pop-its, and slime or putty.
Be mindful when choosing a sensory toy or tool that doesn't contain a strong odor from the packaging.
A social story is a narrative created to help children on the autism spectrum understand how to communicate appropriately in social scenarios.
Social stories can significantly improve the way children with autism relate to both peers and adults. They can demonstrate and teach what to do (and what not to do) in social situations and when problems arise.
Using social stories, you provide information and structure to help the child with autism navigate social situations.
An example of a social story may be in a comic book format or a series of simple sentences illustrating what the child can expect to happen and why.
Recognizing hypersensitivity in a child with autism is the first step to supporting them in life’s everyday scenarios.