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The Power of the Nose: Autism and the Senses

It’s no secret that hypersensitivity is a hallmark attribute of many children and adults living with autism. After all, as research has demonstrated, the filtering mechanism in their brains frequently operates differently from neurotypical individuals in terms of processing touch, smell, hearing, taste, or sight.


In this space alone, we have often looked at ways that theatres, arts organizations, and community spaces have sought to mitigate children’s hypersensitivity, especially to bright lights and loud noises, through such events as holding autism-friendly screenings of films in which the lights are turned up and the sound is turned down.


However, one sense that we have not looked at the cultural ramifications of—and one that has recently received renewed attention—is smell.  This might be because for many families, issues with smell often arise around the dinner table, thus making this a private issue. As some parents have reported, it’s not unusual for their children to have difficulty eating due to the smells being so overwhelming and thus being attracted to seemingly odorless food such as fruit, pizza, mashed potatoes, and bread. Others might find that the smells of the ocean, food stands on the boardwalk, or those of a particularly piquant restaurant can be downright debilitating for their children, keeping them from enjoying the sights around them.


A recent study is seeking to illuminate this dance between smells and autism and in the process, has potentially shone on the spotlight on a powerful new form of diagnosis. As reported in the recent issue of Current Biology, a study conducted on thirty-six children found that children with autism did not make any noticeable distinctions in the smells they were attracted to, spending the same amount of time smelling a blossoming rose as they did smelling a rotting fish.


The children in the study, which was held at the Weizmann Institute of Science, were given a set of green and red tubes that sent pleasant and unpleasant odors, respectively, up their nostrils. While most children normally adjust their depth of smell depending on the attractiveness of the odor, those children with autism did not.


According to one of the researchers, Liron Rozenkrantz, “Children with autism didn’t show this modulation at all—they took the same sniff for the smell of shampoo as they did for rotten fish.” The team was able to establish a computer program based on smell that diagnosed autism in children with 81% accuracy. They also found that the more severe the symptoms of autism were in a child, the longer they would spend smelling a certain smell.


In terms of how one can mitigate this particular type of hypersensitivity as it relates to attending certain cultural events, like a potluck or community meal, often it helps most to prepare a child in advance. By letting them know that their food might be rather pungent, a parent can help his or her child to relax and thus have an easier time eating. Soft distractions, like calming music or the presence of a favorite toy, can also aid in the child not being overwhelmed by smells.


Thus, this study goes a long way to adding credence to the rather vexing relationships children with autism can have with odors. Whether smell will become part of future tests to diagnose autism, this still remains to be seen.