Sensory Processing Issues: Smell with ASD

Remember in our previous blog on taste differences that smell makes up a large part of our sense of taste. Therefore, an individual with an Autism Spectrum Disorder might have an extremely fine sense of smell, which can be enough to make them avoid certain foods or even lose their appetite. So, there might be overlap in this very complicated topic of sensory differences as they co-exist in each person.

“Our sense of smell is so deeply ingrained in our psychology that many times we don’t even realize how scents are affecting what we do and how we think. Smell, more so than any other sense, is also intimately linked to the parts of the brain that process emotion and associative learning. Meaning that our sense of smell influences our feelings and perceptions neurologically. Our brains are hardwired to perceive certain smells and have an emotional reaction to those smells.”

Excerpt from: http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/human-biology/smell.htm

Smell might be a hidden source of discomfort and even anxiety for some persons with ASD. “Hidden” in that a neuro-typical individual might not perceive a particular smell that registers heavily for the person with ASD.

I am reminded of a few instances where smell was a critical factor in the daily happenings of certain individuals with an ASD.

One young man with limited verbal capabilities would protest behaviorally when it was time to go to the restroom. Mind you, this was a boy’s restroom at a high school. After some careful analysis and problem solving, the staff decided to try changing the restroom from the boy’s restroom to the teacher’s restroom.

As with most teacher’s restrooms, there was more attention to décor and cleanliness. There were smells of lotions instead of the usual smells of high school boys’ restrooms. The protests stopped once this change was made. Again, what might be a faint smell to most might be a very powerful smell for persons with ASD.

As another example of sensory issues with smell, a parent of a child with autism shared this story:

Upon entering a boot store for the first time, the smell of leather was so overpowering that the child fell to the floor and started crying. Once they stepped back out of the store, he was able to regain his composure and tell his parents that the smell hurt him. It also makes one wonder what other smells impact this child, but in a lesser way.

In summary of this series on sensory differences, we must be vigilant in looking for sensory triggers that may impact a person’s ability to focus, to engage and to be successful in a variety of environments. If one is aware of their own triggers, then they can prepare and adjust accordingly, if possible.

In another blog we look at how narratives might be one strategy to help deal with these sensory differences.

And make sure to check out our other blogs on the topic of sensory processing issues:

By Lisa Rogers

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The Education (K-12) Blogs and Special Ed Q & A are written and maintained weekly by Lisa Rogers with Educating Diverse Learners. Lisa received her M.A. in Special Education with an endorsement in the area of individuals with severe disabilities. Mrs. Rogers has also created products that have been used throughout the state of Texas for training purposes. Through the Association for Texas Professional Educators [ATPE], Ms. Rogers has produced an online course that targets the importance of visual strategies for student with autism spectrum disorders and just released her highly anticipated book titled: Visual Supports for Visual Thinkers.

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2 thoughts on “Sensory Processing Issues: Smell with ASD

  1. While I agree with this article, I find it unacceptable to refer to any form of autism as a disorder. Referring to autism as a disorder is a reflection of the type of thinking used by the DSM psychiatric model. Big Pharm and the psychiatric community would have us believe that anyone who is different is mentally ill. I am a 73 year old autistic man. I am not mentally ill.

  2. My son has Aspergers and he has an aversion to smells but only in certain situations. Normal smells at home like air freshener etc don’t phase him but we went to a cheese making factory and he refused to go in.