Anyone who’s ever smelled burnt popcorn understands the effects of certain odors. People with autism may experience smell sensitivity more than most, often leading to discomfort or distress. Read on to learn more about the heightened sense of smell that comes with an autism diagnosis.
What is the olfactory system?
The olfactory system is the part of our body that helps us smell. It works by picking up different smells in the air through our nose and nasal cavity, then sending these signals to the brain.
The brain interprets what it receives and processes them into familiar scents or odors. This is how we can recognize a familiar aroma, such as baking bread, freshly cut grass, or even something unpleasant like garbage or smoke.
For people with autism, this sense can be heightened and more sensitive than for those who do not have autism. They may experience strong reactions to certain smells, which can significantly affect their behavior and well-being.
Do children with autism have a heightened sense of smell?
It is widely accepted that children with autism have a heightened sense of smell. In fact, this is backed up by a 2018 study that found that people with autism use different areas of the brain to process scents than those without autism, causing them to experience smells more intensely.
A more recent 2020 study has confirmed these findings, proving that people with autism may experience difficulties in the more complex aspects of smell processing, such as having a reduced ability to remember or focus on an odor.
The logical next question is, “how does this super sense of smell affect children with autism?”
What effect can a stronger sense of smell have?
Children with autism may experience an amplified sense of smell, leading to difficulties in public settings. A heightened olfactory system could mean they pick up on odors that the average person would overlook.
The following is a breakdown of possible challenges if your child has smell sensitivities and strategies to help them (and you!) navigate these situations.
Creates difficulty going to restaurants
While most neurotypical people consider dining out to be a pleasurable experience, for those with autism, dining in a restaurant can be an overwhelming and unpleasant experience.
The combination of smells from the kitchen, perfumes, colognes, and other scents that are often found in restaurants can cause sensory overload for individuals with heightened smell sensitivity. This can lead to frustration, anxiety, or even completely avoiding these settings altogether. It can also lead to stimming.
Causes overt stimming reactions
Stimming is a common behavior among people with autism. It’s often used to help manage sensory overload and can involve repetitive movements, vocalizations, or the use of objects. For people with a heightened sense of smell, this may mean that they have more intense stimming reactions when exposed to certain scents.
In some cases, this reaction is so extreme that it can be disruptive and even dangerous—for instance, if it leads to running into objects or people. This is why it’s important if you’re a caregiver to learn calming techniques for these situations or, better yet, recognize the issues before they happen.
Prompts a need to smell comforting smells attached to a caregiver
One strategy that has proven successful in helping children with autism cope with smell sensitivity is providing them access to comforting smells they can attach to a caregiver or loved one.
This could include giving them a favorite item like a blanket or stuffed animal that carries the scent of their parent or another trusted adult to provide soothing comfort during difficult times.
Additionally, essential oils such as lavender, chamomile, and ylang-ylang have been known to help relax children with autism. Remember that children with autism can detect smells not noticeable to others. This leads to this our next point.
May be distracted by smells unnoticeable to the neurotypical person
If you notice your child with ASD is unusually distracted, yet you can’t smell anything, don’t be surprised if it is their heightened sense of smell at work.
Take, for example, the scent of soap on someone’s skin—it may not register as anything significant to us neurotypical people, but for someone with autism, it could be overpowering and distracting enough that they cannot focus on their task at hand.
Or perhaps there is something inside the room that we don’t smell, like strong cleaning chemicals or perfume from another person entering the building; regardless, these smells can be so uncomfortable they may melt down or avoid the area entirely.
It can cause meltdowns or reluctance to enter an area with uncomfortable scents
If you’re a parent of a child on the spectrum, you’re likely familiar with outburst and avoidance behaviors. Smell sensitivities in your child with ASD can create an inability to handle being in the same space as the offending odors.
If you know your child is sensitive to smells, it’s best to avoid places and situations where this could be an issue. It is also important for family and friends of someone with autism to be aware of the individual’s sensitivities when visiting their home or attending social events together.
How to help a child with a hypersensitive sense of smell?
Children with autism and a hypersensitive sense of smell can easily be overwhelmed by even the most common scents. From spicy foods to fragranced shampoos and gasoline, everyday smells can become overpowering for them.
As a result, they might refuse to eat certain dishes, stay away from certain places, or behave in unusual ways. If your child experiences these challenges due to their heightened olfactory sensitivity, there are things you can do to help them cope.
First and foremost, it is important that you remain patient and understanding when dealing with any related difficulties your child may face. Next, you can try these strategies:
- Utilize fragrance-free cleaning products
- Refrain from using scented candles, perfumes, and deodorants
- Make sure the room is well ventilated
- Provide a tissue or other face covering when needed
- Carry fabric with a favorite scent for sensory-seeking children
- Cook flavorful meals to enjoy
- Notice the smells that cause distress and attempt to limit exposure
- Establish a soothing environment, such as a peaceful room or natural air outside Pursue sensory-friendly activities, including deep breathing techniques
- Consult an autism specialist for additional assistance
Using these strategies can help your child cope with or even avoid challenging olfactory situations. Another tool at your disposal is ABA Therapy, which we’ll discuss next.
ABA therapy is a method to help children who are overly sensitive to smells gain better communication skills. It works by providing positive reinforcement when the child does something correctly and then slowly increases the difficulty of tasks.
ABA therapy can help children with smell sensitivity in many ways, but here are two of the most popular:
Sensory support tools
One of the ways ABA can be used to manage smell sensitivity is through the use of sensory support items such as:
- Scented soaps and lotions
- Aroma diffusers
- Noise-canceling headphone
- Stimulation toys
- Weighted blankets
- Balance boards
Another method children love is learning through stories.
Social stories are short narratives written in simple language that typically describe how someone should behave in certain situations or explain why certain things occur. They can also inform what will happen next, so expectations are managed properly.
When addressing smell sensitivity, social stories can help by providing information about managing certain smells and coping with the anxiety and distress they can cause.
Summing up smell sensitivities
It’s important for parents to recognize their child’s smell sensitivities, understand how they are impacted by them, and work together on strategies that can reduce the impact of smells in everyday life.
Remember, if you or your child is struggling with smells, it’s okay to seek help. There are many resources available to support families in managing this challenge. You’re not alone, so reach out today for an easier tomorrow.
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.
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