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Engaging through the sense of smell

Parents, this might sound familiar… you’re feeling good about the fact that you’ve put dinner together. The kids are miraculously keeping themselves busy. You’ve thought through what you’re going to serve. A few minutes later you call the kids to the table and one of them immediately starts starts throwing a tantrum about the smell.

Does your kid gag or even throw up because they’re sensitive to smells, sometimes from particular food items? It may seem strange, but there are some real reasons why they do so.

Our children’s sense of smell could be just sensitive!!

The smell, or olfactory sense, is unique to every individual, and just like with each of our senses, we could have a very poor awareness of it or be hyper-aware (aka sensitive). It’s comparable to a spectrum, we all fall at different points of sensitivity. Did you know that some people can hardly smell anything?

Either way, what this all boils down to is your child’s unique sensory system . For kids that are more sensitive to smells, what seems like a very mild smell to us, could, in fact, be quite strong for your child. A natural response to an absolutely repugnant smell is to gag. On the other hand there are some children that will try and sniff anything and everything that they encounter which might seem difficult to digest!

Hence, scent immersion utilizes small amounts of scent and places access to the scent under the child’s control. However, when using new scents or exposing the child to fragrant flowers keep an eye for signs of allergic reaction such as sneezing, rashes, stuffy nose etc. Try and stick to kitchen herbs and spices and known flowers and fruits.

Olfactory (sense of smell) sensory activities

Reusing lotion

Lotions could be used for a sensory activity before they get tossed out. Just set out a basket of old lotions with a bowl and spoon and just let your child do whatever they want. The lotion bottles will end up becoming very slippery and very hard to squeeze out! Which again is great of a fine motor activity. Encourage conversations by asking questions such as: Does it smell good? Can you describe how it smells?

Game it up!

Set up a fun and simple game! You can arrange six edible elements (it can be more or else depending on the individuals age) in small containers for them to smell while wearing a blindfold. Select food and spices with strong aromas and take into consideration the factor of familiarity. Some examples could be using lemon slice, coffee grounds, black pepper, onions, cinnamon or some essential oils. Try and encourage them to identify the smell and also pay attention to how they respond to each smell.

Smell and Match

You will need a few containers and different items that have distinctive aromas. You can choose to use a blindfold to make it slightly complicated or avoid it completely. Have the individual smell the different items and try matching them based on the smell. You can also provide them with visual cues by giving the containers a colour code to indicate that its a match! Ask questions such as: Do they smell the same? Can you tell me what is making the smell?

Make Teas to Scent the Room

Teas have a wonderful fragrance that can calm the senses. Avoid unusual scents such as lavender which might have side effects.

You can resort to dry herbs such as cinnamon, hibiscus, lemon balm etc. To add fragrance to a room, put herbs or spices in a pot and let simmer for 15- 20 minutes for a calming experience.

Grow Your Own Plants

Consider growing pots of herbs at home such as mint or basil. Also, consider growing fragrant flowers such as rose but also watch for allergies. All you need is a small pot; potting soil; and seeds.

Put some potting soil into the pot, put 2 seeds together and cover them with ¼-½ inch of soil and water the seeds. Put the plant in a sunny location and keep the soil moist. Create a ritual to grow various herbs/ plants with your child.

Pocketful of Scent for a Child

Here’s a way to give your child a natural scent each day and this could be a great way of introducing new scents to your child. Use fresh herbs and a bit of flower to make a small collage or mosaics. Or put mint or lemon balm in their pocket. He can get the scent on his fingers by rubbing the herb through the day. You can also consider burning incense sticks at home but definitely under adult supervision.


Hands- On Activities for Children with Autism and Sensory Disorders, Teresa Garland, MOT, OTR/L, Bestselling author of Self- Regulation Interventions and Strategies

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