A friend contacted me recently to ask for some suggestions for helping her son. He is on the autism spectrum and recently has started sniffing all kinds of things, even dropping to all fours to sniff the floor at Wal-Mart and stopping to sniff at light poles. This behavior is especially embarrassing to his siblings. My friend asked her son to stop sniffing things and he told her he can't. She came to me to see if I could suggest something inexpensive to try with her son. Here is an excerpt from my reply to her:
You are both right - he needs to stop the gross/embarrassing behavior, and...he can't. I always try to think about how every behavior, no matter how quirky, is meeting some kind of need. We do things that are somehow rewarding to us. With that in mind, you can't just tell a child to stop smelling objects because something in his brain is telling him to do those things. But in your family, in our society, those things will never be acceptable. So you have to try to come up with something that meets those sensory needs and is also an acceptable behavior. Some of the solutions might still be considered "quirky", but there are degrees of quirky and some are easier to take than others. For the sniffing, try soaking a cotton ball in something with a distinct smell and keep it in a snack-size ziploc bag for portability and easy access. You might want to have several separate bags with different smells, and when your son feels the urge to smell something you can redirect him to one of the cotton balls. (Ideas include: cologne, coffee, air freshener, extracts - peppermint, lemon, cinnamon.) You know what smells your child can handle and what ones might set him off, so you choose what works for you. If you discover a favorite scent, you could apply it to a handkerchief or piece of material that he can keep in a pocket and pull out to sniff as needed.
My friend decided to try various aromas on cotton balls and used a large pill case to house each scent separately. The pictures above show her solution, and here's what she says about it.
I bought a pill holder and put cottonballs scented with different things inside each of the seven compartments.
Now, whenever my son has the urge to sniff, he can grab that, open one, and smell away. I used vanilla flavoring, coconut, perfume, lotion....anything that had a strong smell and I tried to find some different from each other. Still quirky, yes....especially in public...but way less quirky than dropping to all fours and smelling a floor in public.