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“That Stinks!” Smell and Sensory Processing Disorder

If you have a smell sensitive child, you know the cringing feeling of trotting past the butcher section in the store. You have probably experienced your child plugging their nose with a scrunched up face while spouting a few less than desirable comments that always seem to come out right when someone walks past. The good news? It doesn’t have to stay this way.

The olfactory system

The olfactory system is relating to the sense of smell. The nose houses receptors that take in odors and send information to the brain. The brain interprets that information and sends back a response to the body that may tell the person that it is good, dangerous, or stinky, etc. For those with Sensory Processing Disorder, how they take in, process and respond to smells may be different.

If the sensory system is hyperresponsive (meaning it picks up signals easier than others) or is hyporesponsive (requires additional input to create a response from the body) these both can create problems. The hyperresponsive child can’t tolerate unpleasant, normally faint odors and a hyporesponsive child may not notice that they need to wipe better after going to the bathroom.

“Name That Smell!”

So what can you do to help a child take in, interpret, and respond to smells better? There are several games that address this area. Your spice cupboard is a great place to start. “Name That Smell!” You can be a nerdy mom like me and do your best Bob Barker impression for this part. Even better if you rattle off their name with a “come on down!”

Take the lids off a couple, more familiar spices or herbs and ask the child if they can identify that smell. Talk about the different qualities. Does it smell sweet, bitter, like a pizza? If they want to taste it, all the better. Keep it simple and with only a few scents per day but repeat often. If you have essential oils these work well but you will need to be cautious that the oil does not get on their nose as it may burn sensitive skin or get on their hands and into their eyes.

Another way to help the olfactory sensory system is by simply talking about the smells you notice as you occur them (walking by a fast food business, through the library, after a fresh rain). Take a deep breath in through your nose and say “Can you smell that? What does it smell like to you?” Describe it yourself, especially if they are struggling to come up with a description.

Stinky moments made sweeter

What can you do to target those unfortunate stinky moments for a smell sensitive child? Be prepared! If the cafeteria at school is a daily problem, include a scratch and sniff sticker in their lunch pail or even put a little drip of vanilla extract on a paper towel in a snack baggie. Scented chapstick works well for some. You can also keep little pleasant smells like those described above in your bag to bring out for or after difficult times.

When you notice your child getting overwhelmed, its also a good time to use some relaxation techniques. Try having them do some deep breathing. Use deep pressure hugs if they work well for your child. Maybe practice some mental imagery and using their imagination. Have them describe their favorite smell and why they like it. Walk them through visualizing being in their favorite place. For a child with Sensory Processing Disorder, these smell experiences can be truly distressing. Learning to coach them through it and find tools to manage is rewarding!

The best news is that this system, like the other sensory systems, can improve with daily repetition and use. Just like a little cinnamon can make a recipe pop, a little work with the nose can make life smell just a little bit sweeter.

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