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?