Does your child ever gag just from smelling a food?
It seems like a surprising reaction (and certainly a scary one to experience), but autism parents know gagging at the smell of a food can be pretty common.
This article will cover why autistic kids and kids with sensory issues might gag from the smell of foods and what you can do to help your child get over his sensitivity to smell.
Why Kids with Sensory Issues Gag from Smelling Food
Autistic kids with sensory issues can experience the five senses more strongly or less strongly than most others do. This means they can feel more aware of (or more sensitive to) or less aware of (less sensitive to) certain smells. A heightened sensitivity to smell that might result in gagging at food can be called hypersensitivity of the olfactory sense.
Kids with sensitive sense of smell might experience a smell that most perceive as mild as being very big and strong. Having such a big reaction - especially if it’s to a food they don’t like - can be extremely uncomfortable and even scary. The body might have trouble processing such a big reaction to a disliked smell. Gagging is a natural normal response to that sort of experience.
Why Picky Eaters Might Gag From Smelling Food
Sensory symptoms are not the only reason that picky eaters with autism are extra sensitive to the smell of food. Gagging in picky eaters might have just as much to do with food and eating as it does with the sensory system.
One reason picky eaters might gag from smelling foods is because they are not usually exposed to a wide variety of foods. Frequent exposure to a wide variety foods can desensitize the system and improve the sensory response. When kids aren’t used to encountering a diversity of smells their response to the smell can be more intense. Basically, familiarity makes something easier to tolerate and these kids aren’t familiar with a wide array of foods.
Another reason picky eater with autism may gag at the smell of food is because their body is actually responding to the thought of having to eat a non-preferred food. For many kids with eating issues, eating is an uncomfortable or anxiety-producing experience. The prospect of having to eat can therefore manifest as a physical response like gagging.
Finally, gagging may be a conditioned response that your child has learned gets him out of eating. A seriously picky eater (often referred to as a problem feeder), might have realized that grown ups think gagging is alarming and such a serious reaction that they remove foods from the table or end eating all together. If a kid has seen this happen, he might use gagging as an escape technique.
How to Help Kids Who Gag from Smells
Gagging can be an attention-seeking behavior or an avoidance technique. Ignore the reaction.
Give your child tools to minimize his or her reaction
Honor your child’s reaction. Make sure your child knows about the techniques below. You might want to provide a small portion of coffee beans alongside meals because coffee can clear and neutralize odor.
Serve foods cold
Cold foods don’t smell as strongly as warm ones do.
Move smelly food away
The further a child is from a food the less strong the odor will be. Move foods away if a child gags and teach your child that this is a good technique. As your child becomes more comfortable, work on slowly moving foods closer.
Cover food or cover the nose
Another coping tool that can help your child manage his sensitivity to smell. Foods on the table can be covered. Alternatively, a napkin can provide some relief if a smell is really overwhelming.
Increase exposure to new foods
Desensitization is important for helping a child who gags from the smell of food. Desensitization occurs through exposure. Cooking and food science experiments are two fun ways for kids to increase their exposure to new foods. Any exposure to new food helps to desensitize, but you can do specific smell activities where you match scents, describe them, or classify them as large, medium, and small.
Instead of alarming your child with an unexpected food smell, let him know that smells might happen as you begin cooking or serving a particular food. With a warning your child can prepare his sensory system and get ready to use some of the coping techniques suggested here.
Open a window
Fresh air can dissipate a smell and encourage the smell to fade faster. Fans can also help kids with smell sensitivities. Opening a window and turning on a fan can be used preemptively when you give your child the heads up about eating.
Try essential oils
Essential oils have two roles for kids with eating anxiety and odor sensitivity. Preferred smells can serve as a distraction while certain smells can be calming and centering. Try herbal or citrus scents to clear the olfactory system.
I like this kid-friendly starter pack of essential oils.
Slowly increase - start small and work up
Baby steps are key to increase comfort. Begin using the above techniques and slowly modifying as your child becomes more comfortable smelling different foods.
Gagging at the smell of food is common in kids with autism who are picky eaters or have sensory symptoms. There are many techniques that you can use to help a child manage their sensory reaction to smelling food.
Does your child gag from smelling new foods? Try one of the above techniques to improve the gagging reflex.
AND! Personalized Support
My signature nutrition program is perfectly designed for kids with autism whose sensory symptoms interfere with eating a healthy diet. You can sign up for a free call to learn more about how it works and how I can help change your child’s diet for good HERE.