Strategies for Coping with Sensitivity to Smells

  • Situation

    My grand-daughter is age 7 and I take care of her. She receives speech, O.T., P.T. and feeding programs. She has a lot of sensory problems. I try everything to help her. I can’t take her out to eat because the smells make her go wild. Please help.

  • Summary

    Many children experience strong negative reactions to smells that surround them. This can happen in restaurants and school cafeterias. Consequently, children may react with acting out behaviors when faced with sensory sensations that are adverse to them, and/or they may just refuse to enter these triggering settings.


    A number of strategies may help such children to cope and handle these settings. This answer will address 5 behavior interventions. Social stories, mini-schedules, environmental and choice control, and sensory tools used together may decrease the negative sensations and connotations these settings have for children.

  • Definition

    Sensory tools are items that can negate a sensory issue, help a child cope with a sensory issue and/or provide the child with a more appropriate behavior to use in a particular situation.  In this case pre-teaching coping strategies and incorporating more favorable or tolerable smells within an aversive  environment can help a child cope with sensory stimuli that may be aversive or overwhelming.


    A Social story is a simple description of an everyday social situation, written from a child’s perspective. The situation is described in detail and focuses on the important social cues, events, expectations and ways for the child to react in the situation. Behavior stories are intended to be used with a child prior to an event. It is rehearsed with an adult so that when the event actually occurs, the child can use the story as a guide for behavior.


    A mini-schedule is a listing of the events that will occur in a situation; in order or simply as a listing. A mini-schedule can be a listing in words or pictures or both. Children often like to check off or cross off each item as it occurs or is finished. This can provide a sense of control over a situation thus reducing problem behaviors due to anxiety.


    Environmental control is changing the environment to prevent negative behaviors.


    Choice control is a strategy that gives children control over situations when they feel at a loss or ‘out of control’.

  • Quick Facts

    • Child's Age: 3-5, 6-10, 11-13, 14-17
    • Planning Effort: Moderate
    • Difficulty Level: Easy
  • Pre-requisites

    Child’s ability to understand simple stories, words or pictures.

  • Process

    1. The situation indicates the child is receiving speech, O.T., P.T., and feeding programs. First check with these specialists (primarily the Occupational Therapist) who know your grandchild best to offer suggestions and strategies. Share these Watson LIFE Resources strategies to receive their feedback regarding your grandchild.
    2. Determine smells that your grandchild likes and involve her in the decision making process of selecting something that smells good to take to the restaurant. An example could be an orange, or an orange with cloves in. She could help you make this and easily carry with her to the restaurant. Have her smell the item along the way.  “Smelly” necklaces can be easily made with clay, yarn and pleasurable essential oils.  Make a small heart or ball shape with clay.  Add a hole for the string and let dry.  Once dry, add a few drops of a preferred essential oil (e.g. citrus, lavender, vanilla) to the clay.  This can be used as a necklace the child can smell when needed to help mask more unpleasant odors.
    3. Create or adapt the attached behavior story and review with your grandchild before going to a restaurant. This can be a guide for the child.
    4. Provide as many choices as you can regarding the event such as ‘Where would you like to sit? What will you order for dessert? Write these down. Making such decisions may help to redirect her thoughts of the smells and give her control over the event.
    5. List what will happen in the restaurant such as:
      1. Pick a place to sit
      2. Get out my favorite toy or book
      3. Choose my meal and dessert – tell the waiter
      4. Eat my meal
      5. Go home
    6. Have your grandchild check off each item as it occurs.
    7. When you arrive at the restaurant, ask for an area away from the kitchen or near a window or near a ventilated area to help decrease negative smells.
    8. As you introduce these strategies, you may want to start with short visits to the restaurant  such as just ordering a drink or milkshake then leaving.  Then, next time order the drink but sit and drink it there to extend the time in the restaurant.  Then, eventually you can increase the time to eating a full meal in the restaurant.  (start with restaurants that are quick to deliver the food such as Chick-fil-A and then move on to restaurants that are not “fast food”.)
  • Documents and Related Resources

    Smells in the Cafeteria (Behavior Story – Word document)

    This resource was authored by Watson Institute Special Education Consultant, Katie Bentz, M.Ed.

    If you have questions or concerns about the Watson Institute’s use of this information, please contact us.