Health Portugal , Aveiro, Friday, July 03 of 2020, 11:28

Smell can play an important role in Autism

Published this month in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, the work highlights the potential of olfaction as a facilitator and privileged entry point for socio-emotional information in the population with ASD

UA/DICYT Can smell help in the socio-emotional development of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)? Psychologists Filipa Barros and Sandra Soares, researchers at the University of Aveiro (UA), assure that yes, olfaction can play a relevant role in responding to the complexity of social interaction for people with ASD and their families.


Published this month in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, the work highlights the potential of olfaction as a facilitator and privileged entry point for socio-emotional information in the population with ASD.


To construct the arguments, first of all, the duo of researchers from UA’s Center for Research in Health Services and Technologies (CINTESIS) and the William James Center for Research (WJCR), presented literature underlying the social cognition in the SAPs, that is, the way people perceive and give meaning to the social world. “Changes in this area seem to be present from very early in development and persist into adulthood, and may be closely related to broader difficulties in social skills,” says Filipa Barros.


However, they explain that most studies on socio-emotional processing in ASDs focus on a unisensory perspective, encompassing only visual stimuli, as is the case with emotions expressed on the face. However, Filipa Barros warns that “the social environment is multi-sensory in nature, as we receive information about our surroundings through the various sensory systems.”


As such, “the olfactory system has a number of particularities that make it unique compared to other systems, including its privileged relationship with emotional processing, as well as its ability to influence how we feel, think and behave in a subliminal way.” Filipa Barros, by way of example, says that “olfactory stimuli are able to induce emotions quickly, significantly and without us being aware of it, just as olfactory perception is also influenced by the way we feel.”


Smell, they add, “also has the ability to influence our visual perception, also playing an important role in social interaction, communicating crucial information about ourselves and those around us.” Thus, “we argue that olfactory processing, as well as the integration of olfactory and visual information, should be considered and researched within the scope of social perception and behavior, especially in ASDs, since they have the potential to boost not only knowledge in the area, but also the development of more effective interventions with this population.”


The main objective of the now published work is, the researchers confess, to boost research in olfactory processing and integration of visual and olfactory information in the ASDs, which “we believe will not only bring relevant knowledge, taking into account the existing gaps in the field, but may also feed the development of more adjusted and cost-beneficial interventions.” In fact, they believe that olfactory stimuli can be an effective means of responding to the complexity of social interaction, helping to reduce difficulties in this area.


More importantly, the study points out that these stimuli can be used in a subliminal way and without requiring effort on the part of people, “which is especially relevant for ASDs, where there are often significant changes in behavior, verbal language and cognitive functioning.”


A specific application of olfactory stimulation could be, for example, in the successive pairing of olfactory stimuli of an emotional nature with emotional facial expressions, in order to understand whether olfactory cues facilitate the recognition of emotions expressed on the face.


Another interesting application presented in this work relates to eating behavior. The difficulties in this area are very often observed in the ASDs. “Interventions based on olfactory stimulation, especially involving positive and familiar stimuli, could benefit the eating behavior in this population, reducing not only the difficulties experienced by people with ASD, but also their families,” says Filipa Barros.