Sense of Smell: Why My Child Shows Sensory Defensiveness to Odors, Strong Smells and Detergents Sensory

Sense of Smell: Why My Child Shows Sensory Defensiveness to Odors, Strong Smells and Detergents

This article provides helpful information about your child’s sense of smell and how they can be affected in the classroom if they struggle with sensory defensiveness. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.

Our sense of smell is working all day long. Many people only notice scents when they are extreme or when they are tied to an emotional connection. An individual can be going throughout their day and a strong foul smell tells the brain to plug their nose, or a comforting, baking smell fills the house and someone instantly is in a better mood. Smell is linked to our memories, our emotions and our taste. For a child dealing with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), smell sensitivities and defensiveness can feel very suffocating.

Sense of Smell: Why My Child Shows Sensory Defensiveness to Odors, Strong Smells and Detergents | ilslearningcorner.com

A child who is hypersensitive to smells is overwhelmed by the onslaught of odors and scents from all directions. Other children and teachers often do not notice the scents that are bothering someone who is sensitive to smells. One of the most common complaints is from a child who can’t concentrate on their school work because all they can focus on is the smell of cleaning solution used to disinfect the school. Another issue sensory children may face is the smell of wet clothes in the winter time when children come in from the playground. Some kids with olfactory dysfunction are extremely bothered by this smell and it becomes compounded when the school is not well-ventilated.

How Does Smell Work

The olfactory sense (smell) is complex. Tiny nerve fibers are located within the nose detect odor molecules that are in the air. These fibers send this sensory information to the olfactory bulb, which then transmits the messages to the brain. What is fascinating about this sense is it is a direct sense. This means that in order for you to smell something, chemical molecules from that particular object have to make it to your nose. And think of all the abounding odors that make it to your nose! Did you know that the nose can detect up to 10,000 different odors? Naturally, everyone has a few odors that bother them. I simply cannot stand the smell of eggs cooking on a stove. I love to eat eggs, but avoid the cooking process. However, being sensitive to a particular scent is different from having sensory processing issues and smell sensitivities.

Sense of Smell: Why My Child Shows Sensory Defensiveness to Odors, Strong Smells and Detergents | ilslearningcorner.com

SPD: Smell Defensiveness

In the book, Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, Sharon Heller describes what it’s like to be sensitive to smells:

“Defensives react to more odors and with greater revulsion than other and detect faint, fleeting odors unnoticed by others…Such sensitivity cannot be tuned out. And though the defensive’s sensitivity may be handicapping in today’s world of chemical scents, smell remains a more important survival sense than most realize: all are profoundly affected by the odors that surround us.”

Many times, children with SPD react with a varying amount of emotions to an odor that most people would simply ignore. They respond defensively, as if the scent was a threat. Sometimes, even slight skin or body odors will deter these kids from forming friendships or bonds with people. Children struggling with these sensitivities are frequently sensitive to the many chemicals used in our daily lives, including: detergents, cleaners, perfumes, soaps and more.

Sense of Smell: Why My Child Shows Sensory Defensiveness to Odors, Strong Smells and Detergents | ilslearningcorner.com

How Smell Affects a Child’s Life

The newborn is guided by smell. Barely born, the infant that is placed on her mother’s chest will move toward the breast to eat. Researchers have also found that a newborn can recognize the difference between the scent of their mother and other women. The child’s olfactory system is their ability to discriminate between odors and filter out those that they need to ignore. Some scents, such as smoke, need to be given immediate attention.

The amazing sense of smell is also tied to the sense of taste. It is smell that gives the taste of food the actual flavor. Almost everyone has experienced having no appetite when they are congested or when they have a cold because nothing tastes good. Another way that smell affects a child is memory. The olfactory bulb, that lies at the top of the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain, has direct access to the amygdala and the hippocampus. These two brain areas are strongly responsible for emotions and memory. Interestingly enough, the sense of sight, sound and touch do not pass through these brain structures. This may be why smell is linked so closely with memories.

Because we know how important sense of smell is for children and their learning ability, it’s important to understand the signs of sensory defensiveness. So how can we recognize the signs in a child struggling with a sensory disorder that manifests itself through an olfactory dysfunction?

Sense of Smell: Why My Child Shows Sensory Defensiveness to Odors, Strong Smells and Detergents | ilslearningcorner.com

Olfactory Dysfunction

There are differences and varying degrees of smell (olfactory) dysfunction. To learn how to identify this type of sensory issue, you may notice the following:

Sensory Seeking with Smells

  • Frequently tries to sniff people
  • Excessively uses the sense of smell to identify a new object
  • Seeks out strong odors
  • Uses smell to interact with new places

Hypersensitivity of the Olfactory Sense

  • Objects to odors that most people ignore
  • Tells others they smell bad
  • Easily irritated by perfumes
  • Determines if they like someone by the way they smell
  • Bothered by cooking and cleaning smells
  • Gags at the smell of certain food smells
  • Acts out after the house is cleaned with strong chemicals
  • Very sensitive to smell of smoke
  • Exhibits increased sensitivity to smells and tastes
  • Picky eater

Hyposensitivity of the Olfactory Sense

  • Never comments on how anything smells
  • Is not bothered by strong odors
  • Does not notice foul scents that others complain about
  • May be unable to smell the food or meal
  • Prone to eating or drinking non-edible or dangerous items because the initial smell factor does not inhibit or give warning signs
  • Trouble identifying smells
  • Picky eater (Disconnected Kids, Dr. Robert Melillo)

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Sense of Smell: Why My Child Shows Sensory Defensiveness to Odors, Strong Smells and Detergents | ilslearningcorner.com


Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning disabilities achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs


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