Our sense of smell is especially pertinent to wellbeing because it is the only sense that is directly processed by the limbic brain – the emotional brain. All of our other senses are processed by the thalamus – our thinking brain. Because scent has such a direct impact on our emotions, it packs a particularly emotional punch. For people who experience multiple sensory impairments, the olfactory landscape, or ‘smell environment’ may be especially important for wellbeing. It is important to be aware that processing multiple sensory experiences of any kind can be overwhelming and disorientating, and this is especially true for olfactory experiences.
What you need
An openness to explore the environment with your nose.
- A canister or coffee tin
- A sharp skewer
- Herbs, cut grass, flowers, orange peel
Be aware and take caution as strong smells can be a trigger for epileptic activity.
Guidance and instructions
Spend some time moving around the person’s environment paying attention to what you (and therefore they) can smell. E.g. food, soap, toilet cleaning products, laundry detergent, perfumes, colognes and deodorants and so on. You may also spot scents you did not initially think of: the glue that has been used to attach fabric to a wheelchair, the hot oily smell from a radiator, a smell burnt from the oven, the ink of the printer.
With this greater awareness, reflect on how the person you are supporting may be affected by the odours that are in their environment. Remember that other people may be more or less sensitive to smell than you and that what is pleasant to one person may be unpleasant, difficult to tolerate or even aversive to another.
Here are some suggestions for how attending to a person’s olfactory experiences and sensitivities may enhance their wellbeing:
- Develop a greater understanding of their olfactory preferences, likes and dislikes by offering scents and noticing how they respond.
- When offering smell experiences as an activity do so sparingly, offer one or two scents and no more at a time. Share them in a manner in which they can be opted in and out of, e.g. holding up a box with the fragrance inside which can be pushed away or have its lid put on – don’t flood the whole environment with a scent such as with a diffuser.
- Explore natural odours, e.g. crushed herbs, or flowers, wet earth, cut grass. Natural odours are easier for our brains to process than synthetic ones and can be interesting to experience. Synthetic smells are generally not as fun and not as pleasant! Here are two ways you can create exploratory natural scent resources:
- Wash out a crisps canister (such as used by Pringles) or coffee tin. Safely perforate the lid with a heated metal skewer. Place herbs inside and add a few clean pebbles or a little gravel and tape the lid on well. Shake the tin to bash up the herbs which, releases their scent. When you take off the tape the herbs can be smelt through the perforations in the lid.
- Wash out a drinks bottle that has a sports cap – the kind where you pull up to drink through the nozzle. When the bottle is dry choose a natural source of scent such as herbs, cut grass, flowers, orange peel etc to put inside. Screw the lid on firmly and pull the cap up. Squeeze the bottle to squirt out the scented air of what is inside.
- Use the same soap and detergents in all settings (having checked that they do not have an aversion to it), so that they and their clothes remain smelling as they are used to smelling.
- Refrain from wearing strong scents yourself so as to avoid overpopulating and overwhelming their olfactory landscape.
- Open windows to allow fresh air to circulate and ‘wash away’ any build-up of odours.
- Don’t use plug in scents, or air fresheners, incense sticks etc (unless you are certain that the person likes, and it not adversely affected by them).
What to observe, assess and record
How is the person before you offer them a scent?
How are they whilst smelling the scent? Do you notice any changes?
How are they after smelling the scent?
After making any changes to the olfactory environment, do you notice any changes in mood, wellbeing or behaviours?
© Joanna Grace: Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, author, trainer, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
For more guidance and information on how to make objects for sensory-being and what types of sensory experience are most likely to be accessible, read Sensory-being for Sensory Beings by Joanna Grace, published by Routledge
Connect with Jo on social media to continue this sensory conversation:
Created October 2020