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Olfactory System

What is our olfactory system?

This is what gives us the ability to smell. This system helps us to detect smells that often affect behaviors; for example, burning is dangerous, cookies are exciting… Our sense of smell is linked with our sense of taste, often times children that are picky eaters have a hard time with smell identification and modulation. An over responsive or under responsive olfactory system can affect how one safely navigates their environment, eating behaviors / nutrition, social relationships, and emotional regulation.

An over responsive olfactory system, a smell that might not bother others may be too much to bear for another person. This could lead to things such as gagging, inability to eat certain foods / being a picky eater, inability to use a public restroom or certain environments due to a fear of what smell one might encounter, and may result in one having a big reaction. These things will affect one’s nutrition and being able to participate in building relationships socially. Many cultures build connections through meal times and this may be impacted by the inability to eat at a friend / family's house or a restaurant that is not deemed safe.

An under responsive olfactory system is related to poor appetite due to a lack of enjoyment with food, less consistency with diet quality, navigating safely through different environments (i.e. smelling smoke alerts us that there is a fire), and at times affect the ability to read nonverbal social cues (i.e. one may not be able to smell that they forgot to put on deodorant) impacting development of social relationships.

Specific smells can also be alerting or calming and are a good tool to use throughout the day and/or for sensory modulation. Alerting smells will help your kid feel more stimulated, they can be used in the mornings during wake up time or when your kid is at school to increase their focus and attention. Calming smells are good to use during a bedtime routine or if one’s having a difficult time with self modulation in addition to a calming corner or dim lit room.

Alerting Smells:

  • Citrus

  • Pine

  • Peppermint

  • Eucalyptus

Calming Smells:

  • Lavender

  • Vanilla

  • Rose

Common Red Flags for Olfactory System Dysfunction:

  1. Difficulty with gaging from smells in the environment or having big reactions to environmental smells

  2. Difficulty identifying a strong type of smell such as fire or gasoline

  3. Holds their nose often in a variety of different types of settings

  4. Avoids specific foods or always seeks the same foods

Sensory Tools:

  1. Cooking or baking together with your kid is a good way to introduce them to different smells they may encounter in the real world. Be sure to make them involved in picking the recipe, completing the steps, then maybe even taste testing if they feel up to it! :)

2. Aromatherapy Lotion: Using an aromatherapy lotion in the morning at wake up time or at bedtime is a great way to start/end the day on a good note!

3. Aromatherapy Putty is a great tool to add to your kid’s sensory toolbox for their calming corner!

4. Scented Markers:

5. Scratch and Sniff Stickers:

6. Essential Oils: Young Living Essential Oils

7. Scented Fidget Erasers:

8. Scented Pencils:


Boesveldt S., Parma V. (2021). The importance of the olfactory system in human well-being, through nutrition and social behavior. Cell Tissue Res.


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