The nose knows – Part 2: Sensitivity to smell


Last week I wrote about using the link between smell and memory to aid learning. This week, it might be interesting to consider the significance of being hypersensitive to smells (hyperosmia).

Sensitivity to smells are fairly common in children who have sensory processing irregularities. Such children are also frequently picky eaters and may be anxious, quickly experience sensory overload with lots of meltdowns and find it difficult to calm themselves.

Smell affects the workings of our nervous system – in particular, the system that controls our flight or fight response to triggers in the environment.  This means that some smells can trigger negative reactions (causing fear, aggression, withdrawal) but others can work positively, calming the system down and helping to regulate feelings.

The key is knowing which smells to avoid and which to use to help the child restore or maintain emotional balance.  Some smells can even cause a physical reaction, such as gagging or vomiting. The child may show flushed cheeks, develop a headache and even a slight fever. This is not deliberate ‘over-reaction’ of the child in an attempt to avoid a situation but a neurological response originating from a powerful sense! On the other hand, other smells may help a child feel ‘grounded,’ in control and even improve attention, focus and task completion.

Some children cannot cope with perfume, food cooking, the smell of room fresheners, aromatic candles and even their own smells emanating from toilet use.  Try to exclude these as much as possible and if you know you’ll be taking the child into an environment that will unbalance him, teach him how to use nose plugs. These can be a life-saver!  Keep windows open during and after cooking to freshen the air.  Do keep your house as well-aired as possible.

Experiment a little to find one or more smells that have a positive effect on the child.  A shop supplying essential oils will be able to suggest which oils are suggested for varying sensory needs.   For example, lavender has traditionally been associated with calming.  If it works for your child, use lavender soap in the bath, essential oils in the home and so on.  Remember though that a little goes a long way – you don’t want to overdo it.

At this point, it might be helpful to focus on children who are picky eaters.

Some picky eaters avoid certain foods because of the smell rather than taste or texture. You need to respect that they really are sensitive to the smell of these foods but, at the same time, know what to do.  You can’t avoid ever cooking certain foods again, after all!

Try to involve the child in finding helpful ways to avoid distressing mealtimes and desensitise themselves to smells they can’t tolerate.  For example, warn the child that you’ll be cooking the offensive food and ask her to open windows to help dispel the odours.  Even better, have the child help you to cook the food.  Raw broccoli, for example, is often tolerated but as it cooks, it emits a stronger smell.  If the child is helping you cook it, she gradually becomes more and more aware of the smell, which might help her adjust rather than entering the kitchen to be overwhelmed by the surprise of cooking broccoli.

If food offends at the table, try moving it away from the child, or covering it up. Also try putting a drop of a favourite essential oil on her wrist so that she can use that to override the smell of food at the table.

Lastly, if you are the parent of a smell-sensitive child, you’ll know to avoid scents in your home.  But what about the school?

Some children are thrown by the smell of the cleaning products used in the bathrooms and other areas.  They can also be tipped off-balance by the products used innocently by teachers. For the sake of those relatively few children, schools should be encouraged to use natural products with as little odour as possible to maintain hygiene, and teachers should be made aware of the possibly negative effects of perfumed deodorants, perfume, scented soaps and hairspray.  Minor changes can have big effects on the lives of small people!


Learning readiness explained

What is learning readiness?

All children can learn and their mental development, seen by the changes in ability that they show from infancy to adulthood, is due to their immense capacity for learning. The stage at which children are thought to be learning ready and so ready to benefit form formal or academic education, usually around the age of 6 or 7 years, is decided by normal mental and physical development.

At around this age, they should have reached a stage of being ‘ready’ for school. The concept of ‘learning readiness’ includes the idea of ‘school readiness’ but the two terms are not identical in meaning. A child may pass a school readiness test but not be learning ready.


It is because school readiness tests do not include the child’s level of neurodevelopment. This means that they don’t consider how the child’s brain and nervous system has developed and whether the child’s various sensory motor systems are functioning well enough to support learning. School readiness tests look for signs that certain abilities have developed that are needed to perform in the classroom. These include the ability to sit still and follow instructions, manipulate a pencil, get along with peers and show certain perceptual and intellectual skills. Perceptual skills include recognizing and being able to name colours, letters and numbers. Intellectual skills include knowing one’s home address, and so on.

Many children show these abilities but the foundation of neurological systems on which these abilities rest is shaky, and they may start showing problems in school either within a short period of time or even after two or more years. Some children may seem to do well academically but their lack of learning readiness will mean that they have to use up a great deal more energy than should be necessary to cope with the behaviour and learning expected by their schools and communities.

To summarise, in order to be able to learn easily and cope with the demands of the classroom and life in general, children need to have reached a level of brain and body development that will support their functioning. This will depend on how well they have developed certain systems in their brains and bodies that are needed to support their learning.

A system can be described as a number of separate parts that work together in order to get something done. For example, a bicycle is a collection of items that are needed in order to provide transport. It needs a frame, saddle, handlebars, pedals, chain, wheels, tyres and brakes. If all those parts are in good working order, the bicycle will work well. Think of what would happen if one or more of these components are not working as well as they should. A tyre that is slightly flat will mean that one has to work a lot harder to get the bicycle to move quickly. It will place stress on the wheel itself, which might in turn affect the stability of the frame, the way the brakes work, and so on. In other words, the inefficient functioning of one of the parts of a system will have a ripple effect throughout the whole system.

In the same way, every child has certain systems that support his or her ability to learn easily. These include the components of the sensory-motor system, such as vision, hearing, touch, smell, balance and sense of body in space. If one or more of these are not functioning as they should, the child will be handicapped in that learning becomes difficult and stressful and seemingly simple tasks cause tiredness and distress.

  • Delay in reaching any milestones or skipping milestones, such as crawling
  • Difficulty learning to ride a bicycle
  • Delay in learning to get dressed independently and tying buttons or shoelaces
  • Clumsiness
  • Problems with sleeping, being restless in bed, preferring to have someone sleep with him
  • Difficulty keeping upright without slouching, leaning on furniture, and so on
  • Tendency to chew on collars and necklines, pencils and anything else!
  • Constant movement – always on the go and sitting in a chair is torture for them
  • Challenged by gross motor and/or fine motor activities
  • Signs of visual difficulties – holds head at a strange angle or close to page when colouring or looking at books
  • Seems to have trouble listening and is easily distracted by sounds. Might also make his own irritating noises

Any of these signs (and more) could be clues that the brain hasn’t developed as it should or that the sensory systems are immature. This in turn means that faulty foundations will affect higher level skills – those demanded by school. Simply put, the child is not yet learning ready.

What to do?

See an ILT practitioner click on the ‘Find a Practitioner’ for a full assessment of whether or not a child has developed to the point that he or she is really learning ready. If not, much can be done to help ‘catch up’.

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