The stench of rotten fish or sour milk would make most people immediately recoil, but those odors resulted in more “vigorous sniffs” among children with autism, a study has found.
The investigation adds to a growing body of research linking the understanding of disease to the olfactory organs. The studies are proving to more frequently pass the smell test, experts told the Outliers team.
“Olfaction and odor are used to gauge and influence the emotions of others and thus play a meaningful role in social communication,” wrote the authors in a small study published this month in the journal Current Biology. The study found that children on the autism spectrum had “profoundly altered sniff responses.”
Israeli researchers presented smells such as rotten fish and rose petals to 36 children, with an average age of 7; half had autism spectrum disorder and half did not.
While those who did not have autism quickly turned their noses up at bad smells or breathed in more deeply to inhale the pleasant ones, children with autism kept right on sniffing “regardless of odor or valence.” The longer a child delayed an appropriate reaction during the 10-minute procedure, the more likely he or she was to have impaired social communication.
Though the authors are optimistic that a smell test evaluating sniff reactions to pleasant and foul odors could one day be used to help diagnose the condition, they also note that the study is preliminary. More research is needed, particularly among younger children, they say, since research shows that early intervention provided from birth to age 3 can greatly improve a child's development.