Sunday, July 12, 2015

Smell and Taste Sensitivity in Autism

In last week’s blog entry, I discussed the issue of sound sensitivity, which is quite common in people with autism, and how listening to the EASe CD with modulated music helped Alex overcome his difficulty with loud noises, such as vacuum cleaners and hair dryers. This week, as I was reading various research articles from The Great Plains Laboratory, Inc. Facebook page, I ran across two interesting studies related to other types of sensory issues found in autism. Although Alex’s sensory issues have primarily focused upon hearing, sight, and touch, apparently many people with autism also have overly acute senses of smell and taste, as well.

A news report entitled “Study: Kids with autism don’t react to odors” describes research in which thirty-six children, half of whom had autism and half who did not, were presented with various smells through an olfactometer. [To read this article, please click here.] This tool delivered various scents through the nostrils and then measured how the children responded to those smells by how much they sniffed. Typical children breathed in longer for pleasant smells, such as roses, and breathed in a shorter time for unpleasant smells, such as rotten fish. In contrast, children with autism breathed in the same amount of time, no matter what scent they smelled.

The study notes that the response from the children with autism may be linked to a difference in perception of odors, or this may be a physical issue in that they cannot control their breathing in response to different stimuli. Either or both of these theories seem reasonable, since children with autism typically have sensory and motor issues. Whether this sniff response has possibilities as a diagnostic tool for identifying children who have autism is uncertain, but researchers noted that the observed responses might explain the problems many children with autism have with eating, since the sense of smell is closely linked to the sense of taste. However, as one autism researcher noted, the problems with eating may also be linked to motor problems in swallowing and chewing.

Although I’m not completely certain how well Alex can perceive smells, he will comment when he smells something unpleasant, telling us, “It’s too stinky!” and even leaving the room to avoid the smell he doesn’t like. Moreover, he will tell us to spray air freshener, saying, “Need Oust in here!” if the smell is mild. If the smell is too offensive, he’ll say, “Need to spray Lysol!” Also, he has recently begun to make comments comparing one smell to another, remarking, “It smells like french fries in here.” Consequently, he seems to deal with his smell sensitivities because he can verbalize ways to describe them and or even ways to eliminate those he finds offensive. Perhaps his control over smells is one of the reasons he is not a picky eater like many people who have autism.

In another article posted on The Great Plains Laboratories’ Facebook page this week, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative recently published the summary of a research study entitled “Picky eating sways parents’ views of children with autism.” [To read this article, please click here.]  This study from Italy found no differences in behavior or physical issues, such as gastrointestinal problems, in children with autism who were picky eaters versus those who were more willing to eat a variety of foods. However, parents of children who were picky eaters perceived their children to have more behavioral problems and more stress.

Interestingly, the article notes, “the root cause of picky eating in autism remains unknown.” However, the article fails to address sensory issues that likely would impact the child’s eating habits. If the food smells strange or the texture does not appeal to the child, the child won’t want to eat it. Moreover, as the autism researcher in the previous article mentioned, difficulties in chewing and swallowing often found in autism would certainly play a role in eating problems. While this article focuses upon parents’ perceptions of picky eaters, underlying issues beyond the behavioral and physical components they examined are clearly at work.

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, we are blessed that Alex has always been a remarkably good eater, willing to try any food. Moreover, despite the limitations his food sensitivities present that restrict him to a diet free of glutens and milk products, he eats a wide variety of foods. For most of his life, the only three foods he would not eat—other than those not permitted on his gluten-free casein-free diet, which he follows faithfully––were popcorn, broccoli, and mashed potatoes. In the past few years, he has even taken two of those foods off his list and now likes broccoli and mashed potatoes prepared without milk products. We suspect that his former dislike of those two foods was more from a texture standpoint than a taste and smell aspect. At this point, the only food he will not eat is popcorn, which he tells us is “too salty and too crunchy.” Needless to say, we are delighted that he is such a good eater; in fact, he eats a more varied diet than either of his parents. He loves seafood, which I despise, and he happily eats peas, carrots, and mayonnaise, which Ed avoids. Apparently, Alex does not have the smell and taste sensitivities that many people with autism have, and we are thankful for that.

While a great deal about autism remains a mystery, sensory issues, such as sound, smell, and taste sensitivity obviously impact daily life. If these hyperacute senses create stress, the person may either avoid uncomfortable situations or may react in ways to cope with the unpleasant stimuli. Often therapists who work with children who have autism will note, “Behavior is communication.” Meltdowns may be the only way some children with autism can communicate how overwhelmed they feel when they are assaulted with sounds, smells, and tastes that are too strong to handle. As parents, we need to find ways to help our children cope with the world that is often too much for them, and hopefully, research will find better methods to allow children with autism to enjoy the variety of sensory experiences in life so that they can live life to the fullest extent.

“Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in Him!” Psalm 34:8

No comments: