olfactory system

Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: Olfactory System

Although our olfactory system, or sense of smell, is working all day, we generally only notice scents that produce some sort of emotional response or connection. Whether it is a foul smell that tells us to plug our nose or the pleasant aroma of baked goods that draws us in, odors have a distinctly strong effect on our state of mind. Our sense of smell is known for its link to memories and ability to impact our mood. While many scents have a similar effect on most people, sense of smell is also a highly individualized phenomenon based on past experiences and the strength with which we detect various odors.

How Does Our Sense of Smell Work?

Odor molecules are detected through nerve fibers in our nose and sent to the olfactory bulb, where they are interpretedUnderstanding SPD: The Olfactory System as various smells. This information is then processed in different brain regions, both as conscious thought and as instinctual reactions. The olfactory system supports our ability to discriminate between odors as well as filter out those we should ignore and enhance those we should give attention to. As mentioned in the previous gustatory system blog, our sense of smell is also tied closely to our sense of taste, providing us with the sensation of flavor. The olfactory system has a direct connection to our limbic system, explaining why scent has such a strong relationship to our emotions, memory, and behavior. For those with an over responsive olfactory system, smell may be a constant source of anxiety. Not only are odors more intense, the associations between scent and emotion are often much broader and more extreme. Alternatively, those with an under responsive system must work much harder to get the input their body needs, often to the point of interference with routines or social norms.

Red Flags for the Olfactory System:

  • Strong reactions to smells that others may not notice -refusal to try foods or be in the same room as others eating them based on their smell
  • Aversions to scented materials such as cologne/perfume or flowers
  • Strong need to smell objects (may or may not be known for having a strong odor) such as soaps, markers, clothing, other people, flowers, trash, or gasoline
  • Doesn’t seem to notice unpleasant odors or changes in smells
  • Decides whether or not they like people based on scent

Suggested Activities:

  • Guess the scent: soak cotton balls with various essential oils, use scented candles, scratch and sniff stickers, foods/drinks, or flowers to conduct a “blind scent test”
  • Discuss scents throughout the day; put labels to them and discuss emotions or memories tied to them
  • Acknowledge hypersensitivities and emotions linked to them. For example, if your child becomes upset or angry about someone eating a type of food near them, acknowledge that as a valid emotional reaction and help identify appropriate responses, whether that is calmly leaving the room temporarily, moving away from the stimulus, or taking a moment to remind themselves that the smell will not harm them
  • Work on desensitization to smells in increments. Start with small doses in brief amounts of time and always read your child’s cues and respect his boundaries

More on the Subtypes of SPD:

  1. Sensory Processing Disorder: The Subtypes
  2. Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: The Tactile System
  3. Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: The Auditory System
  4. Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: The Vestibular System
  5. Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: The Visual System
  6. Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder: The Gustatory System


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NSPT offers services in BucktownEvanstonHighland ParkLincolnwoodGlenview and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!

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