Taste & Smell: Everything You Need Know

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC December 07, 2021

Taste & Smell: Everything you need to know

What is the gustatory system?

The gustatory system is our sense of taste. The sense of taste is not just one sense that is located in the mouth, but rather several sensations that are experienced in and around the mouth - smell, texture, and temperature. Once the taste is combined with the smell, the actual “flavor” is produced and interpreted by the brain. (article) Just like our sense of smell, our sense of taste is directly linked to memories and emotions.

There are five basic qualities of taste that have been described: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. Many foods and drinks are a combination of these five. 

 

Challenges with gustatory processing

gustatory system

Just like our other sensory systems, the gustatory system can be difficult to process. Children with sensory processing challenges may be over or under-responsive to gustatory input. These children may struggle to identify and categorize tastes. Often, it goes hand-in-hand with an over or under-responsive olfactory system.

Over-responsive

When a child is over-responsive to gustatory input, this means that their brain is telling them it’s “too much.” This child may be a picky eaterand avoid certain foods that have a particular taste, texture, consistency, or temperature. This child may gag or refuse to eat certain foods (it’s important to rule out any medical complications if your child is frequently gagging). This child may become anxious or have a meltdown when trying certain foods. This child may dislike certain seasonings and request more “bland” tasting foods.

Under-responsive

When a child is under-responsive to gustatory input, this means that their brain is telling them it’s “not enough.” This child may seek out strong flavors such as super sour candy, spicy seasonings, or very cold or very hot food. This child may be a messy eater and not notice when food is on their face/lips. This child may over-stuff while eating (which can be a safety concern). This child may attempt to lick or put items in their mouth, including non-edibles, and chew on writing utensils or shirt collars.

 

What is the olfactory system?

The olfactory system is our sense of smell. Biologically speaking, our sense of smell has very important functions, including detection of hazards, pheromones, and is involved in our sense of taste, as mentioned earlier.

Let’s talk about how the olfactory system works without getting too technical. We have approximately 450 different types of olfactory receptors (article), and a different odor activates each one.

“The complexity of receptors and their interactions with odor molecules are what allow us to detect a wide variety of smells. And what we think of as a single smell is actually a combination of many odor molecules acting on a variety of receptors, creating an intricate neural code that we can identify as the scent of a rose or freshly-cut grass.” (article)

Olfactory System

Once we detect a smell, that signal is sent to the brain. There, the smell is identified. The signal is also sent to the part of the brain that is responsible for identifying taste information, as well as the parts of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

Because of all of these connections in the brain, our sense of smell is directly linked to our sense of taste, memory, and emotions. When we eat food, we taste it but also smell it, and that combination is part of the experience of eating. When we smell a certain smell, it can conjure up a memory of when we first experienced that smell or a memory of why that smell is so significant (like grandma’s famous cookies). This, in turn, will elicit an emotion or feeling to go along with that particular scent.

 

Challenges with olfactory processing

Like with all other sensory systems, the olfactory system can be difficult to process for some individuals. Specifically, children with sensory processing challenges can have an over or under-responsive olfactory system.

Over-responsive

When a child is over-responsive to olfactory input, this means that their brain is telling them that it’s “too much.” This child may avoid certain smells or certain situations altogether. This child may have a meltdown in a situation where the scents are too strong. This child may become a picky eater and may not tolerate being around certain foods. This child may struggle to focus in certain situations due to a distracting scent. Often, these are smells that others do not even notice, but for the child who is over-responsive to olfactory input, the smells are overpowering and “too much.” 

Under-responsive

When a child is under-responsive to olfactory input, this means that their brain is telling them that it’s “not enough.” This child may seek out certain smells or certain situations. This child may enjoy situations or environments that have a lot of smells. This child may sniff everything they encounter, including people and non-edible objects. Often, this child is unaware of odors in the environment due to their under-responsive sensory system not registering the olfactory input around them.

 

Tips and tricks

If your child struggles with processing olfactory and/or gustatory information and you’ve identified that they fall into one of the above categories - over or under-responsive to olfactory and/or gustatory - here are some tips and tricks to try to help them process these types of input easier and more effectively!

Feeding therapy

If your child is a very picky eater, seeking out a trained feeding therapist may be the first step. 

A trained feeding therapist will complete an evaluation which may consist of a personal history - specifically related to feeding, parental report on experiences, observation of the child, and possibly a meal journal. If there is an underlying medical or swallowing issue, steps will be taken with those challenges in mind.

If the child qualifies for feeding therapy, a treatment plan will be implemented. Depending on the child's needs and specific challenges, this can include a sensory, behavioral, and/or motor approach/model. If you notice that your child is over or under-responsive to olfactory and/or gustatory input, this will be important information to talk with the therapist about!

Sensory preferences

Based on your child’s sensory preferences, you can tailor specific strategies into the daily routine. A sensory preference is simply when someone prefers or dislikes a certain sensory input - such as disliking certain smells due to an over-responsive olfactory system.

It may be helpful to journal for a few days. Keep track of what your child seeks out and what they avoid. Notice what causes meltdowns. Notice what causes joy. Does your child avoid foods that have a specific flavor? Does your child seek out foods or objects that have a specific smell?

Sensory diet

Once you’ve identified your child’s sensory preferences, you can create a sensory diet that provides personalized sensory experiences throughout the day to help your child feel relaxed, calm, and regulated. You can learn more about sensory diets here with our Free Sensory Diet Webinar.

Let’s go through some sensory diet examples. Remember, these are just examples! Each child is different, and what works for one child may not work for another. Keeping individual sensory preferences in mind is key!

Example Sensory Diet for Over-Responsive to Olfactory Input

Complete this sensory diet 10-15 minutes before an activity that will have overwhelming olfactory input, such as mealtime

  1. Complete an animal walk for 10 feet.
  2. Smell a calming scent, such as lavender. Hold the scent far enough away that it is not overpowering.
  3. Complete another animal walk for 10 feet.

This example provides calming heavy work (proprioceptive input) before and after incorporating a calming scent to help the nervous system feel calm.

This sensory diet can be completed more than once. The goal is to use calming sensory input to calm the nervous system before an overstimulating situation.

Example Sensory Diet for Under-Responsive to Gustatory Input

Complete this sensory diet 10-15 minutes before an activity that involves food, such as mealtime, where the child is over-stuffing and seeking out certain flavors.

  1. Jump and crash onto cushions three times.
  2. Use a straw to blow a cotton ball or pom-pom into a target (complete at least 10 feet).
  3. Complete an animal walk back to the cushions to jump and crash again.

This example provides a combination of movement (vestibular) and deep pressure (proprioception) with the jump and crash, which can help the under-responsive child feel calmer. Often if a child is under-responsive in one area (such as gustatory), they are more likely to be under-responsive in other areas as well (meaning they may seek out more movement or other types of sensory input).

This example also provides heavy work to the oral structures with blowing through a straw, which is calming and provides input before eating, and may specifically help with over-stuffing.

This type of sensory diet should be completed at least three times. The goal is to use a combination of alerting and calming input and oral motor input prior to mealtime to help improve awareness while eating.

Again, these are just two examples of sensory diets for different sensory preferences. A trained Occupational Therapist can help personalize a sensory diet that is right for an individual child based on their sensory needs.

 

More olfactory and gustatory input

Whether your child is over-responsive or under-responsive to olfactory and gustatory input, incorporating more of both types of sensory input can be beneficial. Experimenting with new and different scents and flavors at mealtime can be a fun way to try new things. If mealtime is stressful, try incorporating new scents and flavors during play. Sensory bins are a great way to do this - add essential oils to a rice bin or playdough; use food for messy play, and practice smelling and/or tasting the food items.

 

Final thoughts

No matter your child’s sensory preferences, our ultimate goal is to help them feel calm and regulated throughout the day. In doing so, they can successfully complete daily tasks with less stress and more joy. Sometimes, they just need a little bit of extra help and a bit more sensory input!

If you'd like to learn more about the sensory system and sensory processing disorder, read our comprehensive article here 

 

Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC and Jessica Hill, COTA/L both Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA). They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Rachel and Jessica specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Rachel and Jessica are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Rachel and Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


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