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Taste and Smell Sensitivity

Working together, taste and smell give great pleasure and satisfaction to most of us. For some children with SI dysfunction, many tastes and smells can be repulsive. For kids who are affected, life really stinks – from that minty toothpaste and your coffee in the morning to the musty school bus, detergent on other kids' clothes, wood pencils, the school bathroom, and the typical smelly lunchroom.

Understanding Food Issues

Most of us automatically tune out most smells other than those that are particularly disgusting or wonderful. But some of us can't. Certain odors can be so noxious that they overwhelm a child and interfere with learning, playing, and, well...being a kid. The smell defensive child can be so offended by odors that she truly can't shift attention from her nose to anything else. Then there are other kids who want to smell everything. One kindergartner Lindsey worked with used to wander around the classroom snorting everything, from blocks to clay to his teacher's hair.

A child who is undersensitive to taste often craves extra flavor, going for spicy potato chips, extra salt on his fries, lemon, and Tabasco sauce on his hamburger. (Eating strong-flavored foods can also be a symptom of zinc deficiency.) The taste defensive child may well be reacting to the smell of the food rather than the actual taste. Very often, however, a picky eater is really a child who avoids or seeks a particular texture. This is a tactile issue. A child may eat only foods that are smooth and creamy like yogurt or bananas. A child with weak jaw muscles may avoid chewy foods like meat or bagels. A child who craves crunchy, crispy things like pretzels and fried chicken may be seeking sensory input in the joints and muscles of his mouth. Another child may also be reacting to visual issues. A child might refuse to eat food that moves, such as Jell-O, or insist on only white foods: spaghetti with butter, cream cheese, saltines, chicken, egg whites, and vanilla ice cream.

Once kids find a food they know and like, they may want it the same way all the time. Say you're going out to dinner with another family in the next town. You think to yourself, well, the Chinese restaurant is a safe bet; chicken and broccoli is a favorite with your son. But then the food arrives and your child starts whining, "It's not right!" For a kid with strong sensitivities, it may not be right. The broccoli or chicken bits might be larger or smaller than he's used to. The oil for the wok at this restaurant might be canola instead of peanut oil. Or it's too hot or too cold. The variations are endless, and what's more, sensitivities can change from day to day or meal to meal. "Pickiness" often results in food battles. Not the fun ones like throwing your rice pudding across the lunchroom, but the kind where you and your child have an ongoing battle of wills. As with all the other senses, problems with taste and smell really aren't voluntary. When smell and taste go wrong, everyone suffers, including your child whose taste and smell sensitivities may result in nutritional deficiencies.

Don't forget the role of smell whenever you're considering any problematic situation. Remember Laura, the preschooler who hugged so hard it hurt? She loved riding in a car, train, or bus. Laura went through a long period of horrendous night terrors. The only way her parents could calm her was to take her for a drive. Every so often, though, seemingly out of nowhere, she would start screaming in the car. It finally occurred to her parents that this happened when they were at the gas station, had recently filled up the gas tank, or even passed by a gas station. The smell of gasoline, or sometimes simply the fear of smelling it, sent their daughter right over the edge.

Common Signs of Taste and Smell Sensitivity

It's a rare and blessed child who will eat everything and never say "oh, gross!" Does your child...

  • avoid foods most children his age enjoy?
  • have a limited repertoire of acceptable foods?
  • crave or become upset by certain smells or tastes?
  • hold her nostrils closed – even when nothing smells bad to you?
  • gag, get nauseated, or vomit easily?
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From Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Biel, M.A., OTR/L and Nancy Peske. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here or on the book cover.


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