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.