My Son’s ‘Overdeveloped’ Sense Of Smell Is His Superpower

“Grruuuuukk,” my four-year old son Emmet erupted, vomiting on the heavily lacquered wood table. I stared, aghast, then stole a glance across the restaurant. It was still mostly empty, a small mercy.

Desperate for a break in the kind of monotony that only caring for a young child can instill, I had decided on lunch at a nearby Japanese restaurant, with Emmet in tow.

For me, sushi was a rare treat. I had brought Emmet’s lunch, of course. His bag boasted the same string cheese, yogurt, and mashed fruit pouch that he still eats for lunch, at age nine now, every day.

From the moment we stepped in the door, Emmet began complaining. “It smells,” he whined as we seated ourselves in one of the many empty booths. He immediately lurched sideways on the cushion and flopped around like a dying version of the lunch I wanted.

“Stop it. Sit still,” I chastised, and Emmet reluctantly pulled himself back to sitting. As the server took my order, however, Emmet slowly slid to the floor.

“Get up now,” I growled.

“But mama, it smells!”

“That’s normal. It’s sushi,” I retorted. “Get up and behave.”

He complied, but two minutes later was at it again.

What in the world? I knew him to be curious, stubborn and hard-headed, yes, but not necessarily oppositional.

“Back. Here. Now,” I expelled, the only acceptable words remaining after I omitted the inappropriate ones.

He slowly drifted back to his original seat and positioned himself properly, hands folded on the table. He appeared sufficiently sequestered and I exhaled. He then opened his mouth and vomited.

After the initial disbelief ebbed, I seized a single thought: I should have known. The smell.

At six months, Emmet began eschewing baby food that contained meat and particularly fragrant vegetables. As he grew older, he vehemently, sometimes violently, refused most new food we offered. We dug in, repeating our efforts. I dedicated chunks of days to frenzied scouring of parenting guides and food blogs.

Ultimately, with input from our pediatrician, we allowed him to eat what he would, a simple matter of calories in, energy out. He was meeting his growth targets and had sufficient energy for each day. Emmet was three when I connected the dots. He was eating almost exclusively white food — mozzarella cheese, rice cakes, bread, bananas. And none of them had much of a smell.

Specialists who know about such things identified Emmet as having sensory processing issues. Whether it’s a full-blown disorder is debatable. Yes, he disliked scratchy clothing and sticking his fingers in foam, but as he grew older, he learned to work through his tactile aversions. However, his antipathy toward food, governed by his overdeveloped sense of smell, remained firmly in place.

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Said specialists guided us through occupational therapies designed to lower his barriers to food. First step, remain in the same room as the food. This was key, as Emmet spent two Thanksgivings two rooms away from the dining table, flush with turkey, gravy and other savory plates. He’d eat alone, his string cheese, yogurt and fruit pouch spread out in front of him, and my heart would break.

Frankly, we’ve had only marginal success, despite diligently practicing each step of the new food process. At age nine, Emmet’s dietary repertoire includes dairy, eggs, fruits, nuts, breads and baked goods. I still lie awake at night, cataloging the nutrients he’s missing.

Emmet’s sensitivity is not all impediment, though. A highly developed sense of smell turns out to be useful, even stunning in some scenarios. It’s a little like in the comic books: the boy bitten by a spider; the man hit with a massive dose of gamma radiation.

Like any other family with young children, we make regular visits to the school’s lost and found. While I pull out sweaters to check for nametags, Emmet simply sniffs them. “This one’s mine,” he’ll assert, and pass it over to me. Four times out of five, he’s right.

During our bedtime ritual, I’ll lie next to Emmet on his bed, both of us reading. He’ll nuzzle into me when the lights go out, making sleepy observations.

“Your hair smells like hamburger and air pollution,” he murmured one night.

“Oh, you had pesto today,” he offered, correctly, on another.

Sometimes it’s more invocation than observation. “I wish people didn’t have to eat food,” he’d mutter before drifting off.

We live in the Oakland hills and woke up to a neighborhood fire one night when Emmet was seven, losing some of our yard and decks, but saving the house itself. For a year after, the smell of smoke sent us spiraling back into the horror of that night. But Emmet would often be the first to recover. Oh, that’s just someone barbecuing, he’d say, sniffing the air like a raccoon on the scent of a trashcan.

Nicole De Khors/Burst

Aside from the two local restaurants that serve Emmet-friendly food, my husband and I are, ironically, free to bring him anywhere, his food tucked surreptitiously into my purse. His behavior has improved significantly since the Japanese restaurant debacle, and I’ve learned to mitigate my discomfort by leaving an additional tip.

We ended up at a wine bar one evening, where my husband and I each ordered a glass of red wine with dinner. Staring at Emmet’s plain bagel sitting in front of him, I wondered aloud. “Hey Emmet,” I said. “Sniff our glasses and tell me what you smell.” Obligingly, Emmet hovered his nose over each glass. “This one,” he pointed at mine, “smells like dirt. And dad’s smells like berries.” Indeed, my glass contained an earthy varietal, and my husband’s was brighter, full of red fruit flavors. I glanced at the nearby server, enjoining him to be as impressed as I was. The look on his face read otherwise — mostly discomfort, tinged with reprimand. Oh, for heaven’s sake, I thought. It’s not like I’m letting him drink it.

My husband and I joke about Emmet politely requesting pasta with butter on his first date. But behind the jest lies a kernel of real worry. What if he really does that? What if he’s always like this?

These days, Emmet owns his quirks in a way I never could at that age. He flaunts his food sensitivity before new friends by the first time they sit down to eat together, often earlier. He lays it out plainly. “I’m not really an eater,” he proclaims. “I only eat white food and fruit,” he offers, gauntlet thrown. “And sugar,” he’ll sometimes add, to my perpetual chagrin. This strategy seems to work for him, if only because the non-sequitur throws people off, and by the time they recover, the information is already out there, and it belongs to him.

Occasionally I pause and try to imagine what it’s like to be him. Is it like a dog, disturbed by high-pitched noises the rest of us can’t detect? I make a mental note to step into his shoes more often, to share his world so it isn’t so solitary. But who am I kidding? Despite our best intentions, we all live in our own worlds, ones filtered through our senses, ones we carry around with us.

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