Sensory Processing: The Sense of Smell

Categories: Sensory | Sensory Series

It’s been a while since I’ve dedicated an entire post to one of the sensory systems.  You can read my previous sensory system posts here. Today we will explore our sense of smell, which is otherwise called the olfactory system.  The olfactory system is one of the more straightforward sensory systems and one that humans could live without.  It is the only sensory system that has a direct pathway to the brain; therefore smells can give immediate information about the environment around us. Research has shown that difficulty with the sense of smell can negatively impact quality of life.  Let’s explore this sense a little further.  


The Importance of the Sense of Smell

In basic terms, the olfactory systems helps us detect odors in the environment and determine if they are pleasurable or noxious.  On top of that, the sense of smell is closely tied with our emotions and memories.  Think about the smell of your favorite meal or baked treat, flowers,  that newborn baby smell, or the smell of your favorite perfume – these smells probably evoke happy and positive emotions/memories.   The sense of smell can also help detect potential danger- such as something burning, gas leaking, or if food has spoiled.  Thinking of these smells can bring up negative thoughts, fear or danger.


Difficulty with the Sense of Smell

Remember, we all have our preferences.  I’m sure you can think of some smells that you love and some you can’t stand, and how those impact your daily life. In general, we can overrespond, underrespond or seek sensory input.  Check out this post for an overview of those terms.  Here are some behaviors you may see when we are looking at the olfactory system.

For example, children who overrespond are very sensitive to smells and may notice smells more than others.  They may avoid places with strong smells or avoid certain smells.  Because food is closely tied to smell, these children may avoid certain foods based on their smell.

Children who underrespond to smells may be unaware of various odors in the environment.  Therefore they may not be able to determine what is a good smell or what is a bad or even dangerous smell.

Children who seek smells may smell everything (or everyone!).  They may enjoy strong or even unsafe smells, like paint or gasoline.  They probably enjoy foods that have a strong smell as well.



What can you do?

You may be wondering how the olfactory system may impact your daily activities, or how you may develop this sense further.  Here are some tips and ideas for you.


Consider the smells in your environment and within tasks

  • How would a student who is sensitive to smells feel in the environment?  What about a student who seeks smells or doesn’t notice them?  Be mindful of the perfume or lotions you wear and how it may impact your students.  Think about snacks or lunches – how would a student who has difficulty with the sense of smell handle it?  

Incorporate opportunities to explore the sense of smell in daily routines

  • Try things like scratch and sniff stickers, scented markers, scented playdough, scented lotions.
  • Different smells can be calming, and some can be alerting.  There are so many different kinds of lotions and oils available with a variety of scents, including peppermint, lavender, citrus.  Generally, I have found lavender scents to be more calming and citrus or peppermint to be more alerting, but everyone may react differently.  Make sure to talk with a child’s parents and check for allergies before exploring different scents.   


References and Resources


This blog is for informational purposes only.  For specific recommendations please contact your OT.  Be sure to avoid very strong smells and supervise children appropriately during all activities.  


  1. Thank you for this article. How would one go about helping an autistic child who is smell seeking foul odors (feces, arm pits, etc)? Is a replacement approach a strategy? Offering a child a more pleasant smell to distract from the harsher one is mentioned but I’m not sure if it’s for children with smell avoidance or smell seeking behavior. Thank you:)

    • Hi Mark! I like to think about the overall impact of the sensory seeking behavior on the child’s participation in daily activities. This can be especially important when looking at the sense of smell as there may be safety concerns related to seeking less pleasant or dangerous smells. In general, sensory seekers do crave ‘more, more, more!’ and will actively find a way to get that sensory input, so exploring different smells may be helpful. However, every child is different and this can be tricky to navigate, so it may be beneficial to work with an OT for more specific guidance and strategies. Thank you so much for reading!


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