Learn more about the Olfactory System – what is it? Why is it important to childhood development? How can we support the development of this sensory system in our kids?
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What is the Olfactory System?
So far in this series, we’ve explained how the ears, the skin, the eyes, the mouth, and the muscles and joints channel information to the brain where it can be processed and understood. The olfactory system (the sense of smell) is yet another way for our brains to receive information about what is going on around us.
The sensory receptors in the nose pick up information about the odors around us and pass that information along a channel of nerves where it eventually reaches the brain. In humans, the olfactory system can discriminate between thousands of different odors and helps us recognize whether smells are dangerous, strong, faint, pleasurable, or foul.
Interestingly, the olfactory system does more than just process the things we smell. It is also closely related to our limbic system, a part of our nervous system that is responsible for emotions and memory. This is why the smell of the leaves in the fall can instantly give you that “first day of school” feeling, even if you haven’t been a student in years!
The olfactory system is also associated with the sense of taste, helping to create the flavors that we taste in food. This is why nothing seems to taste quite right when you have a bad cold.
A Healthy Olfactory System
A child with a healthy olfactory system is able to tolerate smelling foods and other odors in his environment. He can even tolerate unpleasant odors (within reason) without extreme reactions. A functioning olfactory system helps a child know the difference between “good” smells – those that are safe, pleasant, or associated with positive emotions – and “bad” smells – those that are dangerous, displeasing, or reminders of negative experiences.
Problems With the Olfactory System
As with the oral sensory, vestibular, proprioceptive, auditory, and visual systems, the olfactory system can also be involved in sensory processing problems. Children with sensory processing issues may be hypersensitive (overly sensitive) to smells. They may gag or even throw up when they encounter smells that, to most people, aren’t unpleasant or even noticeable. They may pick up on and become distracted by smells that most people don’t even notice (e.g. the smell of the cleaner used on their desk or the smell of the soap they used to wash their hands).
Children with hypersensitivity to smell tend to struggle at mealtimes, both with smelling the foods on their plates and with tasting the food that’s presented to them. They don’t experience pleasure with smells that most of us associate with pleasant memories or good experiences, like smelling chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven.
Other children demonstrate decreased sensitivity to smells (hyposensitivity). They seem to crave certain smells, frequently holding non-food items to their noses to smell them (e.g. crayons, toys, etc.). These children may not have an understanding of “safe” versus “dangerous” smells, which can lead to safety issues (e.g. being drawn to strong smells like cleaning chemicals or strong-scented permanent markers).
Activities for Exploring the Olfactory System
-Stronger smells (e.g lemon, peppermint) are typically associated with more alert behavior
-Softer smells (e.g. lavender, rose) are typically associated with calmer behavior
-Try one of these fun olfactory activities with your kids!
-Make your own Scratch ‘n Sniff stickers!
–Cooking with kids is a great way to experiment with different smells
-Try one of the fun products below to stimulate the sense of smell!
3. Scented toys
*Never use toys or products with strong odors of any kind – the sense of smell in children is extremely sensitive. Never use perfumes or sprays with young children. Inhaling strong smells can be damaging to the tissues of the nose and, in some cases can be toxic.
Read up on the rest of the sensory systems by checking out our entire series about sensory processing, including the following posts:
Check out our series on Sensory Processing Strategies for Teens & Older Kids.
Be sure to head over to Lemon Lime Adventures to read out Dayna’s take on the Olfactory System from a mom and educator’s point of view!
Want to learn more about sensory processing? Check out our book, Sensory Processing 101!