Sensory Series -Olfactory

Introduction to Olfactory


There are many teachers and parents of autistic children who can recall a time when they came into school or came home, wearing a new perfume or body butter that they bought on a whim or received as a gift, only to be told by their student or child “You smell funny, what stinks?”

Many people don’t notice the smells around them unless they are particularly pungent. Imagine how overwhelming places like school lunch halls, markets, and bathrooms must be if your sense of smell is hypersensitive. Sudden changes to smells can cause distress as well – which is why some people may react badly to a change in washing powder, perfume or deodorant.


This is where everything smells overwhelming, and things that people without hyper-sensitivity barely even notice are distracting and distressing to those with hyper-olfactory senses. Things to look out for include:

  • Breathes through mouth.
  • Covers nose.
  • Won’t visit certain environments – especially places like school lunch halls and toilets.
  • Gagging when they are not eating may be a response to olfactory stimuli.
  • May actually tell people that they smell or that certain rooms stink.
  • Will not eat certain foods, or even go into a room where certain foods are. These foods might not have particularly pungent smells to other people, but for the individual they do.



These individuals have a much higher threshold for olfactory input than other people – which can cause problems with hygiene or determining whether food and drink is safe to eat. Things to look out for include:

  • Seeking out smells – particularly strong ones, and these can be unpleasant or disgusting smells.
  • All food tastes the same to them.
  • Will sniff people and objects to get an understanding of their surroundings.
  • May be neutral to or even partial towards their own smells such as dirty nappies or being unwashed.
  • Does not seem to notice smells in general that are offensive to other people.


The olfactory sense perhaps gets ignored the most out of the main five senses, despite the fact there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence of students being upset when their parents change their washing powder, or by the fact that their teacher ate garlic the previous night that they can still smell.

Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such.

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