Thursday, March 21, 2013

Inner Vision: Transcending Olfactory Stereotypes in Autism (Part II)

Part I of this story can be found here.

A paper fractal flower addresses scent delivery issues in an olfactory play environment that embraces autistic children. The "fractal flower" acts as a repository for a narrow fragrance blotter which can be inserted scent side up or scent side down inside a hollow stem. This aspect of customization opens olfactory play to children with a variety of olfactory capacities, allowing children and their caregivers to shape the smelling experience. Emphasis on hypersmellers and hyposmellers is prevalent in literature that focuses on the sensory life of autistic children, so the form and function of the fractal flower is a good litmus test for olfactory stereotypes.

Constructed out of four wide tapered fragrance blotters, the fractal flower possesses the self replicating pattern of flower petals found in the natural world. When arranged in a group, fractal flowers invite curiosity, resembling a playful flower patch. Repetitive pattern is soothing to all children; whether they have autism or not. Repetition implies order, predictability and a structural narrative which is why fractals are universally appealing.

The idea for the fractal flower is shaped by an olfactory exercise used to study ingredients in perfumery. It is common for those working with raw materials to practice smelling, recording and recalling sensory impressions while smelling ingredients on paper perfume blotters. Some materials require more study than others which is largely due to their complexity and sheer beauty. Jasmine grandiflorum is one of those ingredients.

Olfactory exercises conducted at night have a way of influencing the subconscious as memory and emotion are the first set of doors opened by scent. After smelling Jasmine grandiflorum before going to sleep my dreams included images of star jasmine floating above a lake. These images stayed with me and were the impetus for replicating the flowers in waking life.

The morning after the jasmine dream I noticed four unused perfume blotters that I'd left on my desk after studying Jasmine grandiflorum. The images from the dream animated an idea that led to a working form that could be expressed by assembling the blotters into a flower. As I folded and secured the four petaled flower I realized it was the perfect repository for a slender perfume blotter that could be inserted scent side up or scent side down. That is how the "fractal flower" was born.

At the Play Connection event, the categorization of hypersmellers and hyposmellers proved to be more stereotype than fact. The deferred position of the scented blotter was scent side up. The odorant was applied at the highest dilution (three strengths per material was available to address potential smelling issues). Only one child requested that their scented blotter be turned down which resolved the odor intensity issue.

Children who were less verbal than their Asperger counterparts began smiling as they smelled. When they recognized familiar vanilla aromas they began to speak. Their responses varied based on personality, level of shyness and the degree to which autism affected their ability to interact socially. A child who was completely non-verbal interacted with a fractal flower when it was inserted into a form of repetitive play (he was carefully filling dump trucks with beans in even amounts and allowed the flower to become part of the play ritual, albeit briefly).

The aromas smelled were; Madagascar vanilla, vanillin, Tahitian vanilla and heliotropin. The most popular scents were Madagascar vanilla and heliotropin (the later is a molecule known to have calming effects in an empirical study). When the children were asked to describe the smells the most common descriptors were; cookies, cake, and ice cream. Many of the children said that smelling vanilla made them feel hungry.

Are autistic children strictly hypersmellers and hyposmellers? The definitions within these perceptual categories are not incorrect, but their generalized application is. Sensory processing disorders exist in children with autism, but this "condition" is best defined as a dialect of the senses. In addition, olfactory capacities vary based on genetics and medical conditions. If an autistic child is taking medication it might affect olfactory and gustatory chemoreceptors.

It wasn't long ago that synesthesia was considered a neurological aberration that deserved to be "typed" rather than explored as a superpower. This condition of cross-sensory perception has become chic in the culture because it is aligned with the arts and pursued by neuroscientists.

It is important to remember that extreme categorizations like that of hypersmellers and hyposmellers infuse a quality of predictive judgment that cages possibility. Children with autism have a lot to teach science. It would be wise to make room for the possibility of variety in their olfactory experience and be wary of stereotyping. The key to understanding autism and the senses is more openness.

The first part of this story appeared in a March 3, 2013 post on Glass Petal Smoke.

Hypersmellers are overstimulated by smells. Hyposmellers are under-stimulated by smells. A person experiencing migraine with aura can experience temporary hypersmelling just before a headache comes on.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Gift of Jasmine

An ounce of Jasmine grandiflorum CO2 extract sits inside a rosewood box. Protected by a black velvet pouch, the essence rarely sees daylight. A French perfumer gave it to me as a gift before I left New York. One whiff and I instantly remember what he said when he gave it to me, "This is jasmine of Grasse from Chanel's Fields. You will never smell any other jasmine like it." A short moment of silence transpired as the perfumer migrated from reverie to speech, "Treasure it. The vintage is sublime and not so easy to get."

The cosseted lilt of his French accent was infused with the sweetness of dark honey and a hint of mischief. There could be no doubt that what he said was true; I could smell the fruity floral essence of the fragile white petals accompanied by an indolic trace that spoke of leather, musk, sweat and skin. It was written in the soft undercurrent of fragrance that followed the path of his hand as the bottle left his jacket pocket and found its way into my fingers.

No wonder there are tales in jasmine-lore about farmers who keep their young daughters out of night blooming jasmine fields for fear they might be seduced by roving lotharios. Jasmine does not impugn, but she does not ensure chastity where she breathes.

Jasmine CO2 has a rich amber color and contains the complete concentrated essence of the flower. When combined with rose absolute a familiar olfactory pairing emerges. It’s the smell of every woman who has worn a classic luxury perfume; an intimate smell that is more about presence than the boudoir. The marriage of jasmine and rose is legend in the art of perfumery as each ingredient accentuates the beauty of the other. It is said that there isn't a fragrance formula that jasmine can't befriend.

Much has been written about the rose in the English language, but far less of jasmine. Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote about the flower's fragrant persistence which he shares in this poem:
The jasmine came upon us, as always, from behind
when we were drunk and vulnerable.
All evening we spoke about the armor of perfume
that will be pierced by pain, the security
candy provides, about brown
chocolate insulation,
about old disappointments that become
the hope of the young
like clothes that went out of fashion
and now are worn again.

At night I dreamed about jasmine.
And the next day jasmine penetrated
even the interpretations of the dream. 

The perfumer who gave me the jasmine knew how complex jasmine could be and planted a seed as he advised, "Even after you have learned the Jean Carles Method of perfumery, and have memorized similar and contrasting ingredients with your nose, you must continue your studies privately. You should try smelling a single raw material before you go to sleep once or twice a week. Don't analyze it. Just smell it and let it work through your senses. You will be amazed at what happens when you wake up."

I took the perfumer's advice a few times, first with bergamot, then with lavender and finally with frankincense. These essential oils are known to inspire relaxation and continue to be studied in the lab. The story of jasmine and its preciousness made me hesitate. If jasmine was capable of marrying so easily in perfumery where would it nest in my consciousness?

For three consecutive evenings I smelled jasmine before bed. The first two nights I smelled the essence on a perfume blotter. For the third and final night I applied a small amount of jasmine in the hollow at the base of the throat (known as the suprasternal notch in classic anatomy). When applied in this manner the aroma diffuses evenly as you breathe.

All of these smelling exercises produce an effect that is similar to reading a book before you go to sleep; you remember the details of what you've experienced with incredible clarity upon awakening.

The jasmine effect was more intense when the fragrance was worn to bed and found its way into a dream. I woke up that morning and spent a good part of the day making paper flowers out of wide perfume blotters for an olfactory class I was scheduled to teach. I needed a device to support a slender fragrance blotter for smelling and the dream inspired by jasmine allowed me to create it.

As I formed each paper flower the perfumer's words echoed in my mind, "You will never smell any other jasmine like it." His words still ring true. I have smelled many varieties and vintages of jasmine in my work, but never anything like the Jasmine grandiflorum CO2 ensconced in a rosewood box...

The waxy and herbaceous floral aroma of Jasmine grandiflorum includes facets of; green pear, banana, cinnamon, tea leaf, bee's wax and tobacco leaf.

Aftelier Perfumes sells a gorgeous jasmine absolute (grandiflorum) and a beautiful Turkish rose absolute. A few drops of each diluted in jojoba oil or perfumer's alcohol make a beautiful perfume. They are truly a perfect pair.

Jasmine flowers at night. It is believed that florigen, a plant hormone, builds up in the leaves when the plant is exposed to sunlight. This signaling hormone travels towards the flower buds where it causes them to bloom at night. Florigen's chemical identity is being researched via molecular genetics.

The perfume of jasmine, like many fragrant white flowers, is more noticeable at night as these flowers attract night pollinators. 

Joy by Jean Patou is a wonderful example of the alchemy of jasmine and rose. According to legend there are 10,000 jasmine blossoms and 28 dozen roses in a 30ml bottle of Joy perfume.

A la Nuit by Serge Lutens is inspired by singular aroma of jasmine. Though other ingredients are used to support the fragrance the effect is intensely jasmine. 
Though there are no online examples of the fragrance charts used to study the Jean Carles Method of perfumery, you can purchase an article I wrote for Perfumer and Flavorist in May 2007 which contains the Jean Carles charts. The article is called "Exposing the Perfumer". Glass Petal Smoke is of the opinion that universities would benefit greatly from teaching the Jean Carles Method of Perfumery as part of sensory curriculum in science and the arts.

It is not uncommon to find jasmine fields in Grasse that are exclusive to fragrance brands. Le Domaine de Manon's Jasmine grandiflorum fields are proprietary to Christian Dior. Diorama, a Christian Dior perfume created in 1949, is a stellar example of a beautiful execution of jasmine in perfumery by perfumer Edmond Routnitska. Like many classics it has been subject to reformulation and has lost some of its complexity. It is still a beautiful perfume and is available exclusively at Sak's Fifth Avenue stores. 

Graphics designed by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Inner Vision: Transcending Olfactory Stereotypes in Autism (Part I)

There is little research available on the sense of smell in children with autism. So when I was asked to participate in Play Connection at the Ann Arbor District Library, I said yes. I've worked with high functioning children that have Asperger's Syndrome at 826Michigan Smell and Tell workshops. I have found these children to be some of the most insightful and thoughtful human beings I have ever met. Their evaluation of aroma is creative, playful and precise. When they don't like something they always have a well-reasoned opinion which causes me to reflect on my own preferences.

In accepting the library's invitation I realized I was taking a risk. It wasn't the idea of uncharted territory that gave me pause; it was the research literature I was reading about the sense of smell in children with autism. There seemed to be a pattern of putting autistic children's olfactory sensorial life in a box, which is odd when one considers how little research has been done on odor preferences in children with autism.

The prevailing theory is that children fit into one of two olfactory categories; hypersmellers (extremely sensitive to smells) and hyposmellers (have difficulty smelling). Not much is discussed about the space in between these two extremes in Olga Bogdashina's book, Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Aspberger Syndrome which was published in 2003. A study at the University of Edinburgh in 2010 suggests that reduced vasopressin levels (a hormone that regulates the perception of new and familiar smells) affects social bonding in children with autism. The focus on "dis"-ability leaves out the issue of what lies in the area between the two extremes of over-smelling and under-smelling.

If one took stock in prevailing opinion it would be easy to dismiss olfaction in a play setting with autistic children. The researchers who conducted "Emotional Responses to Odors in Children with High-Functioning Autism: Autonomic Arousal, Facial Behavior and Self-Report"  in 2011 admitted that,  "relatively few studies have dealt with responsiveness to odors in children with autism" on page four of their study. They selected odorants in their study based on "their [the odors'] potency to induce pleasant or unpleasant odor perceptions." This is explained on page five of their study and quoted here for context and edification:

"Eight odors were used in the present study: vanilla (vanillin), cheese (isovaleric acid), rose (essential oil), green grass (cis-3-hexenol), mint (menthol), chlorine, sweat (androstenone), and feces (3-methylindol). The main criterion for selecting these odors was their potency to induce pleasant or unpleasant odor perceptions. Vanilla and rose, widely used fragrances, were expected to be rated as pleasant. In the opposite, feces and cheese were predicted to be judged as unpleasant. Mint and chlorine were selected due to their property to stimulate intranasal trigeminal nerve structures (releasing sensations of freshness or irritation), and not only the main olfactory system believed to be preferentially stimulated by the other odors. Finally, the odors of green grass and sweat were added as representatives of the physical and social environment, respectively. All these odors were presented at suprathreshold concentrations. The odorous solutions and the control stimulus (distilled water) were presented in 60-ml opaque glass jars in volumes of 20 ml."

After reading the paper by Jasna LegiĊĦa, Daniel S. Messinger, Enzo, Kermol and Luc Marlier, I decided to build on their theory of familiar odors and the idea of potency from a literal standpoint. Vanilla is a universally appealing aroma and is familiar as a smell and a flavor. There are several kinds of vanilla used in flavors and fragrances, as well as isolated single molecules that have the dominant characteristics identified with the smell and taste of vanilla.

Madagascar vanilla, vanillin, Tahitian vanilla and heliotropin were chosen as odorants for the Play Connection exercise. Each was compounded in three strengths by Dream Air, which provided a variety of potencies that could be tailored to suit the olfactory needs of an autistic child. In the interest of creating a pattern the children could follow, the bottles were distinguished by a colored sticker, and potencies recorded as small, medium and large. I referred to them as "big smells and little smells" when interacting with the children.

The graphic above illustrates the aromatic properties of the different vanilla aromas that were chosen for the Play Connection program (you can click on the image for better resolution). This was prepared as a handout for parents so they could participate with their children and understand the aromatic properties of the different types of vanilla being used in olfactory play.

Vanilla is an aroma associated with security, comfort, nurture and home. There are several varieties of vanilla used for baking, but the one that is best known is Madagascar vanilla. Madagascar vanilla is sweet, woody and balsamic. Tahitian Vanilla is a more floral vanilla and is typically characterized as sweet, woody, floral, almond-like, and balsamic. Some adults associate the scent of Tahitian vanilla with pipe tobacco because it bears a resemblance to derivatives from tonka beans which are used to flavor tobacco.

Vanillin is the dominant molecule in vanilla and has sweet, milky and creamy nuances. It is also the molecule used to make artificial vanilla (it can be isolated from vanilla beans, wood pulp and other natural sources). Heliotropin is the molecule which gives Tahitian vanilla its distinctive aroma. It is also the odorant that gives Play-Doh® its unique smell. The smell of Play-Doh® is infused with nostalgia, so much so that Demeter Fragrances released a perfume inspired by Play-Doh®. Does familiarity breed pleasant associations? The answer is yes. Heliotropin was piped into MRI machines and shown to have a calming effect on patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital (63% decrease in anxiety in patients undergoing MRI as part of a study published in 1994).

There was no guarantee that every child who came to Play Connection at the Ann Arbor District Library would want to read the aroma information on the handouts, and/or have the capacity to discuss it (communication is difficult for some children with autism and some of them are non-verbal). As a work around, four hangtags containing an aroma description and a colored sticker allowed children to pick a color versus asking for something by name. This approach added the element of choice and surprise, while taking into account natural shyness and neural issues with verbal communication. Having choices is an integral part of play and puts control into the hands of a child; an approach that takes social anxiety into consideration and creates a sense of safety.

Multisensory context while smelling is important as this is how associations are formed. Adults who are not on the autism spectrum have specific memories associated with vanilla. Children on and off the spectrum who are making olfactory associations may not be conscious of how they relate to smell (it is the most neglected sense in our culture and education, and is an integral part of the experience of detecting flavor). Children ages 8-10 form foundational olfactory memories that stay with them for life. This age group is highly impressionable and finds it easy to talk about good and bad smells.

The equation Smell + Taste = Flavor is an important one to remember. Hypersmellers who have a tendency to smell their food before they eat it already know this. Retronasal olfaction is the name for the convergence of smell and taste that produces flavor. Flavor wheels used to study wine, cheese and other foods help adults form a gustatory vocabulary to describe what they taste and smell. It is a skill that anyone can learn as long as they have a fully functioning chemosensory system.

Describing what we taste and smell is a challenge in all stages in life. This is true because smell is first processed in the limbic system; the part of the brain that manages emotion and memory. It then moves to the cerebral cortex where language is processed. This makes smelling more difficult for children with autism who are easily overwhelmed or aren’t verbal.

Hyposmellers have a hard time perceiving smells and actively seek strong odors. It is possible that they are overcompensating from a survival instinct as the better they smell the more they can tangibly enjoy food as well as sense danger (smoke, spoiled food, etc.). Though this has not been scientifically proven it is a premise worthy of scientific exploration.

Every child responds to smells differently; whether they are on or off the autism spectrum. This is why it is important to respect their feelings and reactions. If they like something, that's fine. If they don’t like something, that's fine too. If the context is comfortable for them it will be easy to tell whether they like something or not.

There is an important issue to contend with regarding olfactory play that no research study has provided answers to; how to deliver aromas so that the sensory preferences of autistic children can be accommodated based on the way they perceive smells. This is a design challenge as well as a delivery challenge. You can't hand a fragrance blotter to a child and expect them to know how to smell it effectively; whether they can smell well or not.

The solution to this issue did not come to me in waking life; it came in a dream inspired by a flower that is famous for its use in perfumery. Stay tuned for Part II of "Inner Vision: Transcending Olfactory Stereotypes in Autism" and find out how the results of this discovery exceeded expectations, and can be applied by teachers and therapists who work with autistic children.
*Part two of this story can be found here.

A big thank you goes out to Laura Raynor, the librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library who invited me to Play Connection so olfaction could be introduced to autistic children as a form of play. Dr. Richard Solomon, the founder of The Play Project, welcomed Laura's suggestion. His favorite vanilla odorant is heliotropin (he was informed of the therapeutic properties after his selection).

Thanks also go out to Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, and Dr. Leslie Vosshall (of the Vosshall Lab at Rockefeller University). Both women allowed me to interview them as part of the "Inside the Olfactory Mind" series on Glass Petal Smoke. Dr. Grandin taught me to think from the point of view of a person with autism. Dr. Vosshall encouraged me to move forward with my ideas, which gave me the courage to try something that has never been done before. The two of you are some of the most amazing women in research that I know.

DreamAir has been incredibly supportive of all of my olfactory work with children and adults, supplying me with raw materials  and scents for all of the Smell and Tell workshops I've conducted at 826Michigan and the Ann Arbor District Library. Thank you Christophe Laudamiel and Christoph Hornetz for all that you do, and for never saying no when I ask for something.

The Bennetto Lab at the University of Rochester in New York is dedicated to researching the neurocognitive bases of autism. Their current project, "Taste, Smell, and Feeding Behavior in Autism: A Quantitative Traits Study," is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Click here to find out how to participate in studies at the Bennetto Lab. NIH-funded studies are funded by tax dollars.

Many research papers are not available to the public unless a fee is paid to access them. This type of "embargo" prevents the public from having access to medical studies that could be of interest to them. Glass Petal Smoke hopes that this changes in the future as open source culture has the potential to accelerate progress by increasing public interest, discussion and funding.

"The Case for the Connoisseurship of Smell" provides interesting information of the sense of smell and makes a case for practicing smell calisthenics; whether you have autism or not. This was reinforced in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled "Uncork the Nose's Secret Powers".

Image Credits:
The Scent of the Primeval is an illustration by artist Li Pei Huang. It appeared in Chuan Art Magazine, No. 2, "The Sense of Smell". Chuan Art Studio is based in Taiwan. To obtain a copy of this magazine contact [at] gmail [dot] com. Image used with permission of artist. Rights revert back to the Chuan Arts Magazine and Li Pei Huang.

Image of Geomant 60: Polysensorial Metaphoric Dimension is from the Strategic Challenge of Polysensorial Knowledge and is licensed under Creative Commons.

All other images designed by Michelle Krell Kydd.