Special Needs Now

How a Sniff Test Could Help Diagnose Autism

Boy smelling flower

Autism means having a differently wired brain, and these differences often lead to sensory processing challenges. Children with autism might be sensitive to bright lights, sounds, textures, and have trouble integrating their other senses, as well. Now, a new study recently published in Current Biology adds even more information to our understanding of how the sensory systems of kids with autism vary from neurotypical kids.

In this study, researchers tested the "sniff response" of 36 children—18 with autism and 18 without—when exposed to a variety of smells that included everything from roses to sour milk. The device they used, an olfactometer, had two tubes, one which delivered smells and the other which measured the child's intake of air or sniff of the smell. Kids without autism reacted predictably—they took a longer sniff of the pleasant smells and a shorter one of the stinky smells. The study's authors hypothesized it's "not that children with ASD will be unable to sniff, but rather that they will generate an inappropriate sniff given a particular odor." But they found something different: kids on the spectrum showed no change in sniffing patterns between the types of smells. Their breathing stayed the same no matter what smell they were presented with.

The implications of these results are still being worked out. In the conclusions of the article, the researchers call for much more research across a wider field of children, they note that this test might help with early diagnoses of autism (especially since it requires no verbal communication to produce results), and they speculate about the connection between sniff response and impaired social communication.

As the parent of a non-verbal child with autism, here's my takeaway: This study is another excellent reminder of the different ways Liam and kids like him experience the world. It's not just that the world is one way—the way I see it—and my child is seeing it the wrong way. It's that his understanding of the world is different than mine. Fundamentally, experientially, perceptibly, and measurably different. Which means that to force him into my world and way of thinking might be the wrong approach.

It's kind of like that dress question that blew up on social media a few months ago. Remember the dress and all the questions it raised—is it blue and black or white and gold? Is there truth to this question? Or are there just different perceptions of the world?

Thinking about that dress still boggles my mind a bit, but I think that considering it—and studies like this sniff test one— offers us all a chance to understand and embrace neurodiversity, which in turn can grow our empathy and acceptance of kids (and adults) with autism.

Jamie Pacton lives near Portland where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam and Eliot. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton

Image "Cute boy smelling flowers in a garden" via Shutterstock

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