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FALL into Your Olfactory Sense

In the spirit of fall, my wife and I decided to have a candle-making date night. We ordered a candle-making kit which came with everything we needed, including a scented oil to add to the candle. The date started off so well, with lots of focus and laughing and random dance breaks. When it came time to add the fragrance, we realized we should have tested it beforehand. As the scented oil went in, the steam from the boiling water carried it into the air; immediately I had a headache and felt very angry. My wife was so confused, and my words were not working because anger had taken over. I had to sit outside for several hours, while she tried to get the smell out of the house. I would like to say this is the first time a fragrance has given me a headache or caused a grumpy mood, but it is not. It is more than just not liking a smell or thinking it smells bad, I have a sensitivity to smell. If this story resonates with you or reminds you of your child, the rest of this blog is important for you to read.

Our olfactory (smell) system is a powerful one. As many people know, it is common for fragrances, odors, and other smells to be associated with memories or specific people and places. Sometimes, those associations can be happy ones, like the smell of turkey reminding someone of family gatherings, and other times they might be hard, traumatic, or sad associations, the lingering cologne of a lost loved one. While a typical olfactory system can already cause distress or regulation, an over or under-responsive system can add another layer of distress, danger, or dysregulation within the brain and body.

With that in mind, we want to help you explore and support your olfactory sensory preferences and possible sensitivities!

One way to identify some sensory preferences you have, or your child has, in relation to your sense of smell is by thinking about the following questions:

  • What kind of smells do you like and not like?

  • Do you have to be close to smell things or can you smell from far away?

  • Can you smell things easily, or is it hard for you to smell things?

  • Are there certain foods you cannot eat because of the smell?

  • Do people say the smells you like are odd?

Maybe thinking about those questions or attempting to imagine what it would be like does not work for you; maybe you are someone who needs to DO to know. Another way to explore sensory preferences for yourself or your child, is to engage in the following experiences that target your olfactory system. As you do them, notice how you or your child respond to them.

  • Go on a family nature walk in a park, garden, or forest, try and notice different smells.

  • Go into a fragrance store and try different scented lotions, candles, oils.

  • Try new restaurants or new recipes, maybe from other cultures or varying spice levels.

  • Have a craft day with your children and use scratch and sniff stickers and scented markers during it.

  • Try adding a few drops of essential oil in a diffuser and experiment with scents that might make you feel awake (peppermint, lemon, orange, rosemary, lime) or help you calm (lavender, chamomile, vanilla, sandalwood, douglas fir).

Now that you have explored your sense of smell and maybe even identified some preferences you or your child has. It is important to recognize if your responses are neutral or are indicative of a sensitivity to smell. One way to identify if you have an over, under, or neutral responsivity to olfactory experiences is by exploring this handout.

If at this point you are noticing that you or your child may have a sensitivity to smell, there is no need to worry. There are professionals who are trained to assess, identify, and support sensory sensitivities and sensory processing disorders. Seeking out a professional for more information, assessment, and support is encouraged. In the meantime, we have listed some activities and guidelines to support both over and under-responsivity to olfactory experiences!

Supportive activities for an over response to olfactory experiences:

  • Reduce the amount of candles and other fragrance items in the home; utilize scent-free hygiene items.

  • Use unscented cleaning products or clean while your children are not home.

  • Organize child’s or your room to where beds or desks are near an open window

  • Limit eating out, or allow your child to bring a nose plug while eating out at restaurants

Supportive activities for an under response to olfactory experiences:

  • Learn about essential oils and the power different fragrances can have on the brain and body; teach your kids about it.

  • Utilize calming essential oils or fragrances around bedtime.

  • Play in the grass, smell the flowers, smell the rain

  • Encourage your child to utilize scented fidgets and art materials (i.e. scented playdough or scented markers)

  • Teach your child what to look for or other ways to identify harmful ingestible items

For more information on the olfactory sensory system and Sensory Processing Disorder, please visit any of the links below.

by Celia Courser & Cary M Hamilton


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