The senses of smell and taste
Since the sense of smell and taste are more or less intertwined in several ways, I thought I would talk about them together.
Some of us really have issues with odors and scents, and either/or/also have struggles with the way things taste.
Our senses can be either hyper sensitive, or completely oblivious, and for many of us, these states can alter from time to time. It is not unusual for me to tolerate unusual odors over and over, and then one day the same odor will make me feel sick or dizzy or cause a headache. This is my experience as an adult. I have read many reports saying that sensory experiences , especially smell and taste, can be very much stronger in youngsters.
Stress can cause us to focus on one sensory experience and make it seem worse than it was when we were in the same room, smelling the same thing for hours without reaction. Or perhaps it is just that my overall self awareness is higher on certain given days.
Some days I might not notice a scent as though my sense of smell did not operate at all.
The same can be said for tastes.
It has been proven that the sense of smell enhances or provides much of the experience of things we taste.
Our neurology being uncertain or unreliable many times, we are often wary that we may have too strong a reaction to new experiences of odor or taste.
Some of us may become very fixed in our behavior surrounding going new places or trying new foods, because of strong responses of the past and unwillingness to experience such strong reactions again.
This fear of reaction or sensory overload is not only experienced with smells and tastes, but also with any sensory issues.
I have seen( and or experienced) these self defensive behaviors dismissed as being picky, obstinate, unreasonable, labeled “goofy” or “stupid” , ridiculed, demeaned, scoffed at, punished, dismissed as not important, and forcibly made to experience the undesired response again and again. I am sure many autistic persons can relate.
I remember being forced ( as avery small child) to eat everything that was put on my plate at risk of being spanked when I did not comply.
This was a common ‘child training’ procedure at the time I grew up ( in the 1950’s) you did something they said was wrong, you got spanked.
It did not take long for me to start screaming “no, no, no” with every spoon full I saw being dished onto my plate.
I was frequently spoon or hand fed , being admonished over and over to take just another bite. My face was held as the food was spooned in and I was punished if I dared to spit it out.
I refused to eat at all after experiencing that for a while, choosing to get the spanking over with rather than spending the meal time in dread of the inevitable.
When it was understood that I could not be forced to eat the items and the quantity that my mother chose for me to eat, when and how she wanted me to eat it, she finally gave up using force at meal time.
The damage was done, and meal time was traumatic for years.
Many autistic folks on the forums I attend report similar struggles with smells and tastes, and similar trauma as the result of being forced to smell or eat things that were offensive due to strong sensory responses.
Many report getting ill frequently in situations where they were forced to deal with adverse sensory input.
This too also applies to being taken places that were painful and distressing and being forced to ‘perform’ in many ways that were distressing, painful, or causing anxiety and fear.
It is no wonder that so many autistic adults (and children) are also diagnosed with anxiety and depression. We have had absolutely no say as to our experiences, have been forced repeatedly to endure what can only be described as stressful and painful circumstances and experiences, and scolded, punished and shamed when we were not equal to the situations we were forced into.
Strong responses to avoid sensory overload are seen as willfullness, issues of control or disobedience, dramas staged to gain attention, manipulative behavior to ‘have my way’ over parental/teacher authority. I suggest that it is self defense when faced with sensory responses that are too strong to control.
Meltdowns in the face of expectations to overcome intolerable sensory overload are not “tantrums” but true traumatic response to being asked to bear something that is actually unbearable.
One might perhaps be “trained” to endure more and more exposure to these sensory overload situations, but it is unreasonable to expect us to willingly submit to such demands, then to expect us to “enjoy it”, and unreasonable to expect us not to do all we can, especially as powerless children, to attempt to avoid such experiences.
As an older adult I can make my own decisions for what to eat, how much, and when.
I choose my own products to use for bathing, shampoo, cleaning, decide where smoking will be allowed, if at all, and I have the choice to use air fresheners, air cleaners, scented candles or ‘scent distribution’ products, laundry soaps, and other products.
I control the sensory experiences that surround me and I am able to excuse myself if the lady who sits next to me in public wears too much perfume or the smell of the burnt nylon coming from the neighbors garage is too bad – I can shut the windows.
I am able to choose my own meals, and season them to taste, I can find alternatives if I don’t like what is on my plate. I can choose something else.
Please consider young children at school, in day care facilities, even at home.
Consider please, older autistic people in care homes, hospitals, institutions, old age facilities and other residential situations where there is no choice.
How can we make things better for those individuals?
How can we make others aware of struggles which are not obvious but which cause so much distress and needless suffering for these individuals?