Perfume has an awkward relationship for people on the autism spectrum. I have autism myself, and so does my son. In relation to scents of any kind, there is the strong possibility of experiencing a sensory overload. This is when an odour is over stimulating the brain cannot process it effectively and the person feels overwhelmed and unable to cope. This can cause a headache, meltdown, or even collapse.
The trigger can be an overpowering smell, a fragrance that sets off a bad memory, or it can simply be random. The safest way to avoid these issues to is always be mindful of what you use, what you wear, and where you are.
Perfume should be kept to gentle, subtle touches, scented products such as soap, bath bubbles, etc should be very mildly scented or unscented if possible. Cleaning agents such as bleach can be extremely strong and should be used when the sensitive person is not present.
If a negative reaction occurs, please be understanding and endeavour to reduce the odour swiftly, and calm the upset person.
If the person is non-verbal be aware of the surroundings and monitor issues that may be a trigger.
On the positive side, aromas can also be reassuring and helpful if used carefully.
A comforting scent of a parent or carer, a pet, or a favourite object can calm a distressed person. A specific fragrance can also be chosen to use as a device to help a behavioural issue. An appropriate pleasing essential oil is often popular for this. Lavender oil is inexpensive and easily available. First of all the person should be allowed to sniff a drop on a cotton pad, and their reaction gauged. If it seems acceptable then it can be used to gradually accustom them to accept it as a safe smell.
The drop of oil should be placed on cotton wool, or something similar, and left within the area whilst the person is entirely relaxed and comfortable. Over time, the aroma should come to be associated with the positive reassuring situations. Once this is well established, the oil can be used to provide comfort during stressful events, such as visiting a new place, a long car journey, or simply an anxiety attack.
Of course this is not guaranteed to work every time, but I have found it to be useful in difficult circumstances.
My own son finds dentist visits to be hard, to the point that he cannot have much needed treatment. The technique I used to help him was to let him pick a scent which he found enjoyable and ‘safe’ smelling. He chose Demeter’s Baby Powder. It is a soft, light, subtle fragrance. I apply it to cotton wool whilst my son is feeling peaceful at home. He holds it near him for a time. Then I do a simple roleplay as if he is at the dentist and preparing for treatment. He opens his mouth in a relaxed fashion, and then rests again.
Once this has happened numerous times, he will have the Baby Powder scent with him at the dentists for an appointment, and see if it helps him relax and be able to open his mouth and receive the treatment.
Odours at dentists and hospitals can be especially important as they tend to have strong and overpowering essential cleaning products, which leave a clear trail in the air.
Always take these factors into account, it can make a difference for adults and children with autism, and for anyone who deals with situational anxiety.
A word of warning, never use a negative experience to try and deter a vulnerable person from a bad behaviour. I have heard of cases of smelling salts or ammonia being used. This only breaks trust with the carer, causes deep distress, and can become abusive. Always help behavioural issues with positives, pleasant experiences, rewards, and enjoyable distractions.
Seek advice from your doctor or a specialist before embarking on any programs.