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Let’s Learn about the Gustatory System

by Kira Selden, MS, OTR/L

“Yuck, I can’t eat that!” If this sounds familiar, your child may have difficulty processing olfactory or gustatory information. Our gustatory system, or sense of taste, consists of receptors in our mouth that not only perceive taste, but also temperature and texture. Our olfactory system, or sense of smell, is composed of receptors in our nose that perceive information about the odors in the air around us. Our sense of smell is unique in that it can activate emotions, create memories, and therefore influence how we feel about certain smells.  

Children who have difficulty processing different tastes and smells are often described as picky eaters. They frequently only eat certain foods and are resistant to trying new food items. Children with increased sensitivity to smells or tastes may gag or become nauseated from certain foods. They may also become distracted by or smell things that most people do not notice (such as the soap someone used to wash their hands) or become distressed when brushing their teeth. While some children have over-sensitive gustatory or olfactory systems, other children may crave or seek out certain smells or tastes. Children who seek out oral input may also bite, chew or mouth non-food items such as clothing, toys, or pencils. They also often make noises with their mouths such as clicking or humming.  

Exposing your child to various smells, tastes, and textures can help activate the processing of these senses. Activities include playing with materials of varying textures such as shaving cream, dry rice or beans, sand, playdough or water beads. Cooking with your child or allowing your child to play with their food additionally promote processing of gustatory and olfactory input. Numerous craft materials also offer the opportunity for exposure to different smells such as scratch n’ sniff stickers or books and scented markers, playdough and bubbles. With increased exposure to diverse tastes and smells, “I don’t want to eat this” could turn into “Can I have more please?” 

For children who are often biting non-food items or seeking out other oral input, they might be seeking out additional proprioceptive input through their mouths. The following activities may be helpful: Drinking from a water bottle with a straw or opening that requires sucking (such as a Camelbak water bottle), chewing gum, eating chewy or crunchy snacks (such as fruit snacks, pretzels, popcorn, or dried fruit), blowing bubbles, and using chewy toys.  

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