Can we use a sniff test to detect autism? Researchers suggest that a child’s reaction to various aromas may be an effective indicator. People tend to take long or deep sniffs of something they expect to be pleasurable, but limit as much as possible air passing through their nose when walking past a garbage heap. However, this ability to co-ordinate senses and actions may be impaired in people who are suffering from autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).
The researchers from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, presented children with unpleasant odors such as rotten fish and also to nice ones such as flowers or scented soaps. They discovered that kids with autism did not adjust their sniffing when exposed to smells, whether good or bad. Children without autism inhaled the sweeter scents to bigger extent than the unpleasant ones. The results, published in the Current Biology journal, show that this method had an 81% accuracy margin.
“The difference in sniffing tendencies between the normally developing children and those with autism was overwhelming,” said Professor Noam Sobel who is part of the research team.
He said that earlier studies had shown that people with autism have difficulties with “internal action models”, templates which the brain uses to co-ordinate our senses and actions. However, it wasn’t clear yet if this handicap would be detected using the sniff test.
Professor Sobel and his team went about their research by exposing 18 autistic children and 18 normally developing ones to both pleasant and unpleasant smells and measured their sniff responses. The children had an average age of 7.
The scientists found that while normal growing kids adjusted their sniffing within a span of 305 milliseconds after inhaling an odor, those with autism showed no such response. This raises the hope that these results could form the basis of diagnostic equipment which can be used during the early stages of development, even while the child is only a few months old.
But before this diagnostic test becomes universal, we need to establish at what age children begin to develop a sniff response. Are they born with it? Do they develop it as they grow? Nobody has explored this yet, so it would be an interesting place to start.
The researchers believe that sense of smell plays a part in social interactions, which perhaps explains its connection to autism.
Autism is a developmental disability which affects how a person (the sufferer) communicates and interacts with others.