Sensory Processing Explained | Olfactory System

Sensory Processing can be such a confusing topic. From terms you may have never heard of to the spectrum of ways it effects all of us, it can be overwhelming. That is why I am excited to join with my friends at The Inspired Treehouse, a group of pediatric physical and occupational therapists, to bring you this series on all things Sensory Processing. This month we are talking about Olfactory Input and its importance for growth and development in kids.

Sensory Processing Olfactory System Explained


Just like last month, I will attempt to explain an aspect of Sensory Processing from my perspective. I will not attempt to use medical terms, explain what I don’t understand myself, or pretend to be an expert. My good friends, at The Inspired Treehouse, will bring you their take on the same topic, giving you a better understanding of Sensory Processing.


I am not a therapist or a doctor.
I am, simply, a mom raising a child with sensory needs.
I am, simply, an educator who taught in Early Childhood Education for 12 years.
I am, simply, just like you.

What is the Olfactory System

The Olfactory System isn’t one you will hear much about or read about as much as the other sensory systems. In fact, you might not even be familiar with this term until now.  However, you have most like experienced the affects the olfactory system more than you realize. I will be the first to admit, writing about the olfactory system is something I have been dreading for the entire series, because lets face it… its just not as exciting as, let’s say, the tactile system.

If I had to define the The Olfactory System without using medical terms, I would define it as our bodies ability to make sense of the world using our sense of smell. It is our bodies way of taking in information about our surrounding to help us gauge if they are safe, harmful and even whether they are important to notice or not. It isn’t simply about our ability to smell pleasant and unpleasant odors, but our ability to discern and recognize safe and unsafe odors (which is vital in helping us regulate our sensory system. 

From the sweet aroma of chocolate or pancakes to the pungent odor of trash, scents surround us. Noticing and deciphering these scents require us to use our olfactory sense to be successful day to day. If I had to define this system with one word, I would use…


Without a regulated olfactory system, we are unable to taste foods the way others do, focus on …

What is olfactory input

NOTE: I want to be completely honest, and state that I am not completely clear on the olfactory system and its affects on children. I am going to attempt to explain it to the best of my ability and share stories from my life as an educator and as a mom, raising a child with sensory processing. 

When I think of the olfactory system, I picture one of two things. I picture someone smelling flowers in a field with a smile on their face. The are in the moment, taking in everything around them, registering that moment in time, and making a positive memory that will last. In this scenario they are using their sense of smell to take in information, process it and make sense of their surroundings.

On the flip side, I also think of stench. Yep. Downright nasty smells that seem to linger and you can’t seem to get out of your nose. Can you picture them? I bet you can even smell them again.

The truth is… our sense of smell is so much more than just a way to sense odors. It is a way for our brains to process information. It is so closely connected to our gustatory (taste) sense that it can actually improve or inhibit the way we taste things. This can be a problem. A BIG problem if your sense of smell is heightened or decreased. It can affect you child’s eating, working memory, and ability to recall information.

When I sat down to write about this sense, I began to struggle. I thought “I don’t know anything about the ‘Olfactory Sense’ as I am sure many of you might be wondering why the sense of smell is worthy of a post by itself.  I even reached out to my Sensory Support Group on Facebook to ask them how the Olfactory Sense affects them and their children. The response was overwhelming! All of the sudden I began to remember exactly what the Olfactory system looks like.

 scent of spring

As an educator, I have vivid memories of this adorable 3 year old in my blended preschool program. The very first day I met her I was immediately shocked by the way she reacted to new things. As she explored the classroom, she would smell EVERYTHING! New crayon… sniff. New block… sniff. New paint… sniff. I was so confused. I would later come to learn that this little girl, in fact, had sensory processing disorder, something I knew absolutely nothing about at the time.

As a parent, we actually struggle with this more than I initially wanted to admit. There are days my son won’t eat ANYTHING.

They just don’t taste right. It smells gross. I don’t like it.”

At first I am always a little frustrated. I know he liked it the day before. I know its one of his favorite foods. Learning about the importance of his olfactory needs, I am able to support him. When he is having trouble with the odors around him and it affects his eating, it tells me his sensory system is having trouble staying organized. This is when I know we need to get out our sensory toolkit and do some heavy work or other sensory activities.

Remember, Sensory Processing is Complex.  It is different for every child, because every child is unique. The problems arise when a child either seeks or avoids vestibular input. For your convenience, I have compiled an Olfactory cheat sheet listing behaviors you might see if your child is with avoiding or seeking this type of input. 

olfactory cheat sheet

Click to download

olfactory resources

sensory processing the olfactory system

Now its time to hop over to my good friends at The Inspired Treehouse, where they are sharing their tips as Pediatric therapists to explain the Olfactory System and why it is important to the growth and development of all children.


Olfactory Play (1) Experimenting-with-Smells Rainbow Scented Cloud Dough

Scented Ice Lab | Experimenting with Smells | Rainbow Scented Cloud Dough

Follow Dayna :: Lemon Lime Adventures’s board Sensory Processing Resources on Pinterest.

Just a few of my favorite books about Sensory Processing books include:

Do you know a child that seeks or avoids tactile input? Do you have a child with sensory needs? Has this post touched you in some way? I would love to know! Please send me a message or leave a comment. It helps when we know we are not alone. Click the picture below to join our Support Group for Sensory Needs.

Sensory Needs Group


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Sensory Processing | Tactile Vestibular Proprioceptive | Auditory | Visual 


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9 thoughts on “Sensory Processing Explained | Olfactory System”

  1. Bridget

    I am so happy I found your blog. And thank you for taking the time to write about SPD. My little guy smells everything! We will be in public and he will ask to smell everything. Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing . But we roll with it.

    1. Lemon Lime Adventures

      Awesome! Thank you so much for connecting!

  2. Erika

    I enjoyed reading this article. You mentioned a tool kit for your son. Can you elaborate? Thanks so much!

  3. I am an educational therapist and would like you to contact me. I would like to know where I can find more resources specifically on olfactory sensory integration challenges. I have a student now who exhibits characteristics of hyper and hyposensitivity to smells. I have found so much information on sensory integration, but very few concrete ideas for helping the children. Is it common for children to have characteristics from the olfactory avoiding behaviors and olfactory seeking behaviors? Thanks so much!

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