Smelling the flowers… or not.

When I was little, we learned about five senses: vision, smell, hearing, touch, taste. Currently, it is believed there are actually eight: the five we all know, plus vestibular (sense of position & movement of your head in space, influences balance), proprioceptive (where your muscles and joints are in space and in relation to each other, influences our capacity to move), and interoceptive (e.g., hunger, thirst).

A sense where a striking difference can be seen in my home is the sense of smell. My husband has a very sensitive nose, to the point of being very much bothered by scents other people can barely smell. Sometimes, instead of trying a bite of any new food, he can smell it and that’s all he needs. My son and I seem to be somewhere in the middle. My daughter, on the other hand… we recently discovered she cannot smell, probably almost anything. And what she can smell, she doesn’t seem to perceive like other people.

A few months ago, she complained of having a distorted sense of taste. She said she felt a sweet taste in her mouth, basically all the time. A little bit after that, she told us that she could not smell properly. We tested that at home, having her smell vinegar and other solutions like it, and she didn’t flinch. We spoke about this to her pediatrician and, after several months, she was referred to the ENT.

The ENT gave my daughter a “scratch and sniff” test where one has to determine (or guess, as she was instructed) the smell of forty different labels. I helped her with the scratching and, for some of the smells, I asked her to let me sniff right after her, so I could have an idea of how her sense of smell works. While we waited for the results, she was hopeful, saying she felt she had done “well” on the test. I told her that I was not so sure about that… some of the smells she had considered pleasant were actually not, and vice versa. Smoke or skunk, for instance, she thought smelled nice. And she thought some flowers or chocolate smelled awful.

The results showed that yeah, her sense of smell is really low or absent. Because she was also complaining of headaches, they performed an MRI of her head. While we didn’t think it would show anything, it is always great to hear that the scan was clean, with no abnormalities observed. The pediatrician mentioned that other causes of a decreased sense of smell include respiratory infections, or allergies, or even your environment or certain solutions. My sense of smell has been under attack a couple of times, first when I was working with pigs, and more recently when I was using some lab solutions that I guess I didn’t properly protect myself against. But my daughter has not had any medical treatment nor has been in any situation that could affect her sense of smell. And it is not linked to allergies, or to sinusitis or any other respiratory illness.

Then I asked autistic people in the “Autistic not weird” Facebook community page. The responses showed that it is not uncommon for autistic people to be outliers, either having a very strong or a very weak sense of smell, with some of them lacking it completely. Some also commented that it could depend on different factors, meaning that one day they could smell fine, and others not. Several said they were adults before they realized their sense of smell was outside the typical range.

In the end, we decided that my daughter is simply one of such outliers. I guess in a way she’s lucky she found out when she was ten years old. We spoke to the pediatrician and she said a supplement that seems to help is zinc (I take it and has helped me), but then, how do you know that her body actually uses zinc properly? It is possible that she does have all the zinc needed but doesn’t have enough receptors. We had already tried allergy medication just in case it was related to allergies, with no results. And, if she’s always been that way, is it worth it or needed to try to find a solution?

Her sense of taste, by the way, is present, and some autistic people also said they can taste fine, even if they cannot smell well. She does like strong tastes, such as spicy food, and very dark chocolate, so maybe her sense of taste is somewhat dulled by the lack of sense of smell.

How much do you need your sense of smell? Do you need it to live? No. Could it be better to have it? Yeah, to a certain extent. We were talking about the pros and cons of having a too keen vs. a dulled sense of smell. On the negatives: lacking a sense of smell means aromatherapy is worthless for you. You cannot smell the aromas of good food, and smells will not make you evoke special memories. You cannot enjoy the smell of the sea, or of the forest, or of flowers. But one can venture that, if you never relied on your sense of smell to feel good or to remember anything, then you must have adapted and use your other senses for those purposes. Now… It could be dangerous not to be able to smell smoke, but if you’re in a modern building most likely you’ll hear a fire alarm and/or will see flashing lights. Or other people would alert you.

On the negatives of having a strong sense of smell: going by a skunk on the highway is a nightmare. Some perfumes and scented candles, even though they should be pleasant, are too strong and can reach the point of being disgusting. The perfume department in a store is hellish. The smell of some foods is too strong and repulsive. You detect foul smells way too fast or for too long… A few days ago, my son accidentally burned a napkin in the microwave. We were all nauseated by the smell, except for my daughter. She was totally fine. “You. Are. So. Lucky!!!” was my son’s comment.

My son and I both thought that, if we were to lose a sense, we would prefer it to be the sense of smell. As I mentioned above, I experienced a decreased sense of smell a couple of times, and it was more unsettling than anything. You would not really need accommodations, special devices or tools. But again, losing a sense is not the same as being born without it. You cannot miss what you never had, right?

Red tulips
A garden of red tulips, shining under the sun.
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My argumentative children

“Spirited” children, or maybe “strong-willed” or, yup, “difficult.” There are courses, books, blogs dedicated to them. But… what is really a strong-willed child, and is that a bad thing?

In a blurb for a course for parents, they speak about challenging behavior, tantrums, and blow ups, power struggles… and “The spirited child can easily overwhelm parents, leaving them feeling frustrated and ineffective.” I don’t think we’re quite there, but yes, it can be tiring having kids who will not hesitate to point out the weaknesses in your argument or request. It can be annoying. And exhausting.

One of the characteristics observed in very young children on the spectrum, and in those with ADHD (and other diagnoses, I’m sure), is that “they want to do things their way” and they are “stubborn.” Neurodivergent children (and people) do see life differently. And, consequently, they react differently. Some norms and rules make no sense to them, and, under scrutiny, some of those rules would make no sense to many neurotypicals, either.

Yes, when I was constantly trying to have them do things my way and when I wanted it, I ended up frustrated. A couple of years ago, I was trying to get my son to clean his room. I was sure that cleaning your room was a crucial life skill. A basic rule of life, right? My arguing with him and asking him to clean his room would lead to arguments and more arguments, and a couple of times I ended up crying. What it didn’t lead to is a consistently clean room. He and I managed to clean his room twice, after many sessions of many hours spread over several days. I even took a picture! And a couple of days later, then the room went back to its usual state.

But then a couple of things happened: one is that I spoke to his amazing speech therapist—who was helping him with executive function: organizing, planning and carrying out tasks and projects, among other skills—and, while talking about his challenges with executive function, she commented, nonchalantly: “and I bet his room is a mess.” Her explanation is that for people with ADHD it is extremely hard to decide, for example, what to discard or give away; or to decide between two items. In ways, I was subjecting my son to torture, because part of my frustration was based on assuming my son thinks like I do, so I was forcing him to do stuff like I would do it.

Then I thought about myself. Normally, I have absolutely no problem with decision making. Some years ago, though, I would go to the grocery store at night, after waking up very early to go to work, coming home to help with whatever was needed and to take care of my toddler and my son, who was in his terrible twos at the time (my husband was with them during the workday). Anyway, I would go to the store and would be looking at yogurt and, for the life of me, I could not decide between strawberry yogurt and raspberry yogurt. And I would tell myself that it was ridiculous that I had already spent ten minutes looking at yogurt, for Heaven’s sake, and could not make up my mind. My solution was to stop going to the supermarket at night. Period. But… what if there was no escape? What if it doesn’t matter how tired you are, what time of the day it is, or how much you worked that day? What if every single time you go to the store you struggle like that? Was I adding one more frustration to my son’s day? Was it needed? Is cleaning your room decisive to your success as an adult?

The other thing that happened is that I’ve been teaching a summer class at the university where I work. The class focuses on study skills and success as a college student. One of the things we emphasize is the need to be intrinsically motivated. That is one of the main factors that will lead to success in life. Extrinsic motivation, which is given by others, can be given in the guise of prizes or punishment. It has been demonstrated that neither works. Even when it apparently leads to continuous improvement of a skill—think tiger moms and piano—it will not lead to the person enjoying that skill or way of living. And it definitely doesn’t create intrinsic motivation and doesn’t foster resilience or grit, or a growth mindset—the belief that you can improve in any subject or skill, if you work at it, and that intelligence and talent are not fixed and unchangeable.

So… I was trying to embed ideas about intrinsic motivation, a growth mindset and grit to my students, but wanted my son to do something he didn’t see a point in doing and that was extremely tough for him, just for the sake of… what? His room is not open to the public. I don’t spend much time in it. I don’t read the books that are inside, nor do I wear the clothes in his closet. So, at that point, I explained to him what I was thinking, and why I thought it was important to have a clean room, etc., and we reached a compromise: his room does have to have space for me to walk on, so I can go in and say good night. And it has to have a clear path to the window where we have the emergency ladder. Other than that, it is his room and he has the authority to decide what gets done in there. Common areas, however, do fall under my authority, and he has to do the chores related to those spaces, and try to keep them tidy. I bet some parents would frown upon our idea of “tidy” but, well, they have their own house they can keep impeccable.

That episode with the room cleaning has been, as far as I remember, the most prolonged and exhausting with my son. Others have been frustrating too, but I’ve come to realize that it depends a great deal on my perspective and how I deal with it. For instance, he is in charge of the dishes that have to be hand-washed. I was nagging him and he would totally forget anyway (really totally forget; he’s not the type to pretend in order to get out of a chore. If he doesn’t want to do it, he’ll argue about it and let you know what he thinks). Instead of getting angry, washing the pans myself, lecturing him, what started happening was that, hey, we have no clean pans, meaning I cannot cook breakfast. Natural consequences are great teachers! He’s doing much, much better in that respect. And yes, there are many more examples, with both kids.

Overall, I must say I prefer my kids to be argumentative. In fact, it sort of worries me when they give in too easily (just don’t tell them I said that!). It looks like I like it difficult, eh?

Well… on one side, there are many, many benefits for teens and adults who were argumentative, stubborn and pigheaded as children. I do believe it shows that they put more thought into their actions. They don’t just do whatever you tell them, they evaluate the request, and decide if it is actually something that should be done. Sure, it is frustrating for me, but I know (hope?) that if they react like that to me, one of the biggest authorities in their lives, they will do the same with other authority figures and other commands or requests. It also helps to withstand peer pressure: strong-willed (stubborn, pigheaded, obstinate) children will not give in as easily as others who are comfortable with compliance and following others’ lead. Strong-willed people are more likely to stay on the path they want to follow, despite being told they won’t succeed, or that society will not approve, or that it is impossible. They will just keep on going.

On the other side… I was like that. Well, probably a bit more obedient. After all, I did clean my room. Or maybe my parents were less willing to debate with me, than I am with my kiddos. In any case, I’ve heard enough stories of me not giving in one inch as a kid, to know I was fairly stubborn. And still am. I do believe that being pigheaded has helped me to be daring and just take the risk in my academic, personal, and professional endeavors. It has allowed me to change jobs and professional paths, to live abroad several times and, finally, immigrate and establish myself with my family in the US (my husband is American).

I want my children to take risks, to study whatever they really want, without fear of what other people may think or how much money they will earn (or the money they won’t earn), or how hard it is. I want them to go ahead and live abroad and face different cultures and life styles. I want them to work, intern, and volunteer in anything that calls them. I want them to become self-advocates and request the accommodations and services they deserve and need.

I don’t want them to be obedient. I want them to decide what they want to do, and to think twice before following orders. I want them to take advantage of their thinking styles, of the unique wiring of their brains. I don’t want them to extinguish their sparkle and doubt themselves and their decisions. I am not raising them to be my “good” compliant son and daughter. I’m raising them to become autonomous adults, and independent thinkers. Leaders, not followers.

Who do we tell our children that they are?

Who am I? The answer depends in large part on who the world around me says I am. Who do my parents say I am? Who do my peers say I am?
– Beverly Tatum

Neurodivergent people are at risk of mental health issues, partially because of the rejection they encounter in neurotypical society. Or the need to always go the extra mile to accommodate neurotypical feelings/customs/ideas. And even that is not enough. They continue to feel misunderstood and at fault for everything—for more on whose fault it is, read this great post by Autistic Not Weird.

We, parents, shape our children’s first experiences. We are also the people who are closer to them for the longest periods of time. We have an outsized influence in how they see themselves—we are their first mirror. What will they see through us? Will they see someone worthy of love, full of potential? Or a defective, damaged being?

 

Beverly Tatum wrote in “The Complexity of Identity: ‘Who Am I?’”:

“Who am I? The answer depends in large part on who the world around me says I am. Who do my parents say I am? Who do my peers say I am? What message is reflected back to me in the faces and voices of my teachers, my neighbors, store clerks? What do I learn from the media about myself? How am I represented in the cultural images around me? Or am I missing from the picture altogether? As social scientist Charles Cooley pointed out long ago, other people are the mirror in which we see ourselves.”

Who am I
The picture is of text, reading: Who am I? The answer depends in large part on who the world around me says I am. Who do my parents say I am? Who do my peers say I am? What message is reflected back to me in the faces and voices of my teachers, my neighbors, store clerks? What do I learn from the media about myself? How am I represented in the cultural images around me? Or am I missing from the picture altogether? As social scientist Charles Cooley pointed out long ago, other people are the mirror in which we see ourselves.

As Tatum mentions, it is not only parents who influence the self-image of a person. Peers, teachers, neighbors, store clerks, the media and other cultural images matter. We can directly monitor our own voice, expressions and behavior toward our children. But those teachers, peers, neighbors… they will base their reactions to our children on our behavior. We set the tone that determines how others relate to our children. If we’re disdainful, demeaning, hurtful… they will follow suit. If we show love and respect to our children, they will know our children are valuable to us. If we speak to their teachers and peers and neighbors in a way that shows understanding, patience and hope, they will see our children through the light we turn on. We filter their view.

What are we going to do? How will we behave?