The smell of breath. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most neurotypical people are not bothered by it (and may not even notice it) unless it smells bad.
Morning breath, onion breath, and poor oral hygiene breath often have neurotypical people with a sense of smell wrinkling their noses in disgust. But for autistic people, any odor on the breath can trigger sensory overload, anxiety, and even a meltdown.
When I was a child, I remember being absolutely overwhelmed by the smell of breath. As soon as someone opened their mouth to speak to me, especially if they got too close, their words became meaningless. The only thing that existed was that smell. That overpowering, constant blast of scent that assaulted my nostrils as I tried everything in my tiny power to get away from it.
Twisting out of the grasp of others, looking away, backing up, or holding my hand over my nose was seen as gestures of obstinance that were to be “corrected” with more, closer, and louder talking which then sent me into a sensory spin of noise and smell, while I still absorbed nothing.
It took me well into my adult life to realize I was on the autistic spectrum and that sensory overload was what was causing my difficulties in socializing and bonding with others. I felt offended by the smells and sounds that came from people.
The presence of someone in the room always meant the possibility of an onslaught of sensory information I could not process, and therefore, would send me scrambling to get away before any attempt at communication had even taken place.
As an adult, I have learned to cope with these distractions in more discreet ways so as not to offend others. More importantly, my sensitivity to these smells and sounds has greatly diminished. But for others on the autistic spectrum, whether adult or child, this may not be the case.
Could Autistic People Be More Sensitive to Pheromones?
I often said this in a wide-eyed whisper as a child: “There are secrets on the breath.” Of course, this was the 1980s, when autism wasn’t really discussed, and adults would give me that slow, sideways head nod typically reserved for the mentally insane.
Nobody understood what I was talking about. Heck, neither did I!
All I know is that when I smelled somebody’s breath or body odor, I would sense things about them. I might get fleeting images, feelings in the pit of my stomach, tingles, or sweaty palms.
My body was responding not to the tuna sandwich they’d had for lunch, but the subtle information contained within their pheromones.
Pheromones are powerful substances that influence mating, bonding, mothering, and other survival behaviors. It’s one of several non-verbal ways we communicate as a species.
Is it possible, because autistic brains respond differently to sensory information, that some of us are hypersensitive to pheromones? And, could it be, that because our brains can’t make proper sense of them (like facial expressions and body language), we have an instinctive desire to protect our overloaded brains by shutting down or lashing out?
I think so.
Here’s how an article on LiveScience.com explains the role of pheromones in human communication:
“Research shows that peoples’ breath and saliva carry chemical signals as to whether they are healthy or sick, and in the case of females, whether they’re ovulating all important messages for potential partners in reproduction.
Furthermore, the skin around peoples’ noses and mouths is rich in sebum, an oily substance that coats our skin. Evidence suggests that sebum contains pheromones, chemicals that broadcast information about a person’s biological makeup.“
It would stand to reason that this information, meant only to be detected on a subconscious level, is somehow reaching certain autistic people on a conscious level and, in essence, temporarily “jamming the signal”, so to speak.
I’m not a scientist, so this is only my best guess.
Autistics With the Most Severe Social Symptoms Are Hyper-Connected
For decades, autistic people were considered cold, aloof, and disconnected from others and the world around them. Thankfully, there is a lot of new research coming to light to show that the exact opposite is true.
“The brains of children with autism show more connections than the brains of typically developing children do. What’s more, the brains of individuals with the most severe social symptoms are also the most hyper-connected.”
So, perhaps the reason autistic individuals shut down, close off, and have meltdowns, is not because we can’t connect, but we connect too much, and on all cylinders at once!
Other Sensory Processing Issues That May Complicate Communication
For some autistic individuals, the smell of breath may be incredibly distracting, blocking out any other sensory information trying to be conveyed. For others, it may be a strong smell of perfume, a very bright light, a texture in their clothing (or yours), or the timbre of your voice.
The reaction of an autistic person to this sensory information is not in any way an attempt to be rude, manipulative, or deceitful. (Furthermore, most people on the spectrum do not comprehend the point of such intentions.)
The problem is that a smell, sight, sound, or texture that may be nothing but background information for you is the one and only thing our brains can focus on.
In that moment, we can’t hear what you’re saying, we can’t read your facial expressions, and we can’t connect with you because the only thing that exists in our world is that one overwhelming sensory experience.
Autistic Children Can Not Adequately Describe What They’re Experiencing
I was not shy about telling someone they had bad breath (or breath in general) when I was a child. I was simply attempting to explain what was distracting me from understanding their verbal message.
Unfortunately, the mention of breath odor, like weight, acne, flatulence, and other human “shortcomings”, is considered rude and thoughtless. Of course, this didn’t make sense to me and only further alienated me from others.
If you have a child on the spectrum, and he is avoiding your touch, looking into your eyes, getting close to your face, or listening to you, chances are, he is experiencing sensory overload.
Something in her immediate environment (this may include you) is overwhelming her to the point where she cannot process anything else. That irritating smell, light, sound, texture, or taste is the only thing that exists, and, until it is removed, the child will feel threatened.
This is the best advice I can give you whether you are communicating with a child, teenager, or adult on the spectrum:
If you have something important to tell us, something you really need us to listen to, make sure you have our complete attention first. Take note of the current environment. Is it loud? Is it filled with cigarette smoke? Are there neon lights or a TV in the background? If so, go to a quieter, more neutral place, and impart your message there.
An Autistic Perspective in a Neurotypical Setting
To see it from the perspective of an autistic person, imagine trying to comfort an upset friend in a smoke-filled room, with death metal music playing at full volume, and five big-screen TVs each playing a different action movie, while sitting on uncomfortable wooden stools.
No matter how much you might want to be there for your friend, your body would be in fight or flight mode, and you would need to get out of that environment for your own safety and sanity before you could do anything else.
That’s what it’s like for us. Sometimes we can’t “hear you over your breath” or some other sensory stimulus has all of our attention locked up. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to understand you. If you ask, we will tell you what’s distracting us, but in order for effective communication to occur, it’s important not to take this information personally.
You may have to pop a breath mint, turn the music down, put on (or take off) some deodorant before resuming the conversation.
The one thing that connects each and every one of us is that we’re all human, whether we’re on the spectrum or not, and the more firmly we keep this in mind, the better we can communicate with each other as individuals and as a society.
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