The olfactory system is responsible for the body’s ability to detect and recognize smells using chemical receptors in the nasal cavity. Children with olfactory processing issues may have trouble identifying hazardous or poisonous substances, such as gasoline, or they may be able to detect very faint scents others can’t perceive. Because smell is one of the two senses associated with flavor, sensitive children may also be hyper-aware of smells associated with food and cooking.
See below for a quick guide on identifying olfactory issues as a seeker, avoider or sensory challenged and how you can help support your child with these struggles.
Olfactory Issues May Appear As:
- Actively smell everything, even things with unpleasant odors.
- Prefer meals or specific foods with new or very strong smells.
- Are desensitized to smells in their environment.
- Craves very strong, specific, or unusual scents.
- Highly sensitive to smells.
- Complain about smells that are very faint or unnoticed by others.
- Tend to become overwhelmed or distracted by new, strong, or particular scents.
- Hold their noses or gag when encountering strong smells.
- Refuse to eat foods with strong, new, or specific smells.
- Avoid using public restrooms or eating in public spaces.
- Unable to recognize familiar or very common smells.
- Accidentally eat spoiled food or nonedible, potentially harmful substances.
- Be unable to detect hazardous chemical or burning odors. However, they might be vaguely aware that something is wrong
How to Support Olfactory Issues:
- Encourage safe smelling of objects, such as flowers, candles, or scented markers.
- Use calming scents, such as lavender or rosemary, to help calm down before bedtime.
- Prepare a wide variety of meals and specific foods with new and pleasant smells.
- Create smelling bottles for your child to keep in his/her bag, desk, or pocket. Simply place spices, a cotton ball covered in essential oil, or any other pleasantly smelling object inside a small (but sealed!) container
- Minimize the use of air fresheners and artificial scents in the home.
- Be conscious of strong cooking smells and scents in perfumes, lotions, and soaps.
- Use natural or mild cleaning products and keep rooms well ventilated.
- Use a mild, comforting scent to “refresh” after a negative experience.
- Practice reading and understanding expiration dates, food labels, and all kinds of household packaging. This will help your child avoid spoiled food and other harmful substances.
- Practice observing the way others react when smelling a dangerous or unpleasant odor. Teach your child to use these reactions to identify potentially harmful substances.
Read more about the olfactory system on the STAR institute’s website.