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Sensory Issues, Smells, and Essential Oils

If you close your eyes, can you imagine smelling your favorite smell? What is it? How does it make you feel? A recent New York Times piece featured anecdotes about the emotional power of smells that bring back memories.

I can recreate in my mind the smell of new plastic dolls, chocolate cake, and milk on my birthdays as a kid, along with the smell of Avon Sweet Honesty and Brocade and Love’s Baby Soft and Rain perfumes. I loved Miss Avon and all her products for girls, and wore my teen and pre-teen perfumes daily. I absolutely adored certain scents—they were calming and energizing.

Smells have a biochemical effect on the brain. Lindsey Biel and I wrote in our award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child,

“When we’re unsure of what we’re smelling or want to get a better whiff, we sniff to create stronger currents to pull more odor molecules up to the receptors in the nasal cavities. Once there, the molecules are absorbed by the nasal mucosa with its hairy sensory receptors that wave in the breeze. When enough odor is up there, an impulse travels up the olfactory (smell) tract. Smell travels directly into the limbic system, which is the center of our emotions, memory, pleasure, and learning. No other sense taps into our feelings quite like smell.”

No wonder using pure essential oils can powerfully affect many kids with sensory processing disorder!

Not long ago, I did a video on using pure essential oils on a piece of cloth in a self-sealing plastic bag as a handy accommodation for sensory issues. There are other ways to use essential oils, too, but of course, when others are around your child with sensory issues, you have to make sure you are respecting their olfactory sense too and not overwhelming them.

The smell bag I described is one way to keep that scent contained, but at home, and perhaps in a shared room at school, you might be able to diffuse essential oils in ways that benefit not just your child but other kids, too.

To learn a little more about the types of essential oils and how they’re used with kids who have sensory processing issues, I recently interviewed Mary Tate, a mom to a son who has sensory processing disorder. Mary’s son—we’ll call him Mark—showed signs of sensory issues as a newborn when he was not able to latch properly nursing. That lead to feeding issues that required help from an occupational therapist and a feeding specialist, therapies he received for about 5 years in addition to OT and listening therapy. Like so many kids with sensory issues, he had a lot going on, but a key to helping him function better was essential oils derived from plants.

Mary says that she used a Focus blend from Doterra, which she started using when Mark was 15. She says it helped him with focus and ADHD (which he was diagnosed with). She also used several essential oils to reduce his anxiety, including a Serenity blend and vetiver oil. Just a few drops of oil in water diffused by a diffusion device was making a big difference for Mark. She also mixed a drop or two in fractionated coconut oil that she would rub up and down his spine, on pulse points, and on his forehead above his nose.

Now that Mark is a young adult and using essential oils himself—including that Serenity blend and pure essential lavender oil. Mary says he even brought his diffuser to college. He didn’t have smell sensitivities, but he had a lot of oral aversions to certain textures in his mouth, particularly mixed textures. The secret to getting a fifteen-year-old boy to try a new therapy? Explaining that it was a way that might help him feel more comfortable and less anxious.

In Raising a Sensory Smart Child, we offer strategies for helping our kids develop sensory smarts and try new interventions that can support them in functioning better at home, at school, and away. I loved hearing that Mary was able to get her teen son to try something new—something that worked as part of his sensory diet and that he uses on his own as a young adult with sensory smarts. (You can learn more about Mary and her work with essential oils at

Another takeaway from Mary’s story is that sometimes, it might not be obvious what interventions make a big difference. Mark didn’t have smell sensitivities, and yet Mary had heard about essential oils and decided to try them to see if they would help with self-regulation of mood and focus—to good results.

On our journey as parents of kids with sensory issues, we will make many discoveries. I think it’s important to remember that our kids are on the journey with us, teaching us what helps and what doesn’t and taking in that we honor their unique sensory profiles!

essential oils sensory issues smell lavender calming

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