Autism: My Love Of Perfume

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Kate Apted

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Hello APJ

Autism is a funny disorder in that it affects each individual with it differently. A common theme is that of sensory processing; in that some senses are heightened in some folk and lessened in others. You will meet autistics who abhor strong smells, including perfumes, and are literally ill around them. Others have a heightened sense of smell and seek olfactory stimulation at any opportunity. I am the latter. I smell , and touch, everything.

Autism: My Love Of Perfume

I have another aspect of my autism that causes me a bit of social confusion. I have hardly any awareness of my emotional state at any given time. Through constant self vigilance, I have learned there are a few general states of being I can recognise; namely, anger, sadness, happiness and illness. I am getting better at recognising signs of slightly more nuanced emotions, like melancholia, grief and contentedness.

Fragrantica

The interesting part of my love of perfumes is that I can readily attribute emotions to scents. It is one way I can more easily identify what state I am in. For instance, if I choose to wear Paloma Picasso, I know that I am feeling assertive, or if I am wearing Safari, I am feeling like a teen. I can get emotionally close to perfumes and colours and music, in ways I cannot with people, or the basic, human part of myself. Whereas I have trouble relating to people, I readily relate to scents.

Fragrantica

I can even go so far as stating that I create relationships with my scents. I get to know them and their personalities. I have a mother scent (Selperniku by January Scent Project), a best friend scent (Queen of Hearts by Queen Latifah), a confidante scent (Apres l’Ondee by Guerlain) and a daughter scent (Chloe Signature by Chloe). I do not talk to my scents as such, but if I am craving the need for a hug, I’ll wear Selperniku. I cannot stand physical touch, so it acts as a virtual, olfactive hug. I get the same sense of comfort others describe hugs as giving.

Fragrantica

Face blindness is another of my quirks. About half the people I meet, or know, I can readily recognise using an aspect of their physicality, such as the sound of their voice, the gap in their teeth, a gangly walk, or a particular cap s/he may wear often. For others, I have to learn their patterns. But one way I can get to know and recognise people is via their scent. Some people have very distinctive smells that I find comforting and reassuring. I can also get to know that person on a more intimate level by judging their health based on how they smell. I know my children are ill long before symptoms become present. They emit an odour particular to certain illnesses. My eldest has a head cold odour and my youngest has a haemophilia odour. It is invaluable to me for I often miss the symptoms for days before I understand my boys are ill. As they have autism as well, communication is not their biggest strength!

In the way that I use glasses to see long distance and my son occasionally uses crutches to walk, my sense of smell is necessary for my functioning in the world. It helps me make sense of the world and find my place in it. I often say I’d rather lose any sense before my ability to smell. I’d be absolutely bereft without being able to understand and interpret the world through olfactory sensory input.

Fragrantica

I think every perfume is more than just a nice smell or a way to promote one’s identity; looking at you Beast Mode alpha males! There is a story behind every scent created and a tale the perfumer wants to tell. Perfume is an art form, as so many of you know. Scents are given as gifts for many reasons, and scent memories are created that transcend wealth, culture and even time! For me, scent goes beyond even that. It is my most fluid form of communication and a tool for me feel grounded in reality. It speaks for me in the way verbal, and often written communication, does not. I wish perfumes would become the Lingua Franca of the world.

Kate X

70 thoughts on “Autism: My Love Of Perfume

  1. Hey Kate,
    This piece is one of the reasons why I continue to have a blog. You are amazing. Thank you for sharing your deepest self with us and I’m so happy that fragrance is able to link you to the world. You sure can write,
    Portia xx

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    • And thank YOU, Portia, for being kind enough to allow me a platform to express myself. I also have a degree of mutism, so written words help me to transmit my thoughts to others. That is why I’ll text or email before I’ll ever speak on the phone. A honed skill, really.

      K xx

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  2. What a touching and incredibly article! I am so happy you posted this, it is very uplifting, and good to know. I have an autistic niece, I am wondering if she has a relationship to scent as well. Thank you for this gift!

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    • That is the beauty of autism. Each person has their own way of communicating and relating to the world. And it is meaningful to them.

      K xx

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  3. What a fascinating post Kate.

    I can sympathise in a way. While I am not on the spectrum, I do have mild OCD. In my case it is expressed through constant touching; almost the opposite of you. I was asked by my therapist just today if there were any of my other senses that I thought were heightened. It did not occur to me to mention smell, but there may be something to that.

    Your piece has made me think a bit and helped me to know myself better. Thank you for sharing.

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    • Ha! Greg, I touch everything! It is human touch and my skin being touched I don’t cope with. Huge bear hugs are fine, but not light or gentle tough. Ugh. But as for touching for textures, spatial awareness etc, I reach out for everything.

      Your senses may be your link to the real world in a way that connects you to your deep emotion. All I can say is lucky you if so. It makes you an incredibly emotionally rich soul.

      K xx

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  4. Brilliant article! So interesting!! I know I am a nose led person but you sound like your nose is the equivalent of long protective feelers on a butterfly/caterpillar etc and very much used for survival. A becan focused on what many can’t ‘see’ The mother instinct is taken up a few notches that you can smell your boys.
    Just amazing. A super duper nose!!

    Xx thanks!!

    Xx

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  5. What a fascinating insight into your world, thank you for writing. It would be terrible if you lost your sense of smell, or if perfume was ever banned. I read that Michael Hutchence lost his sense of smell, which contributed to depression and perhaps his suicide.
    All the best xxx

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      • He lost not only his sense of smell but taste as well. He was a real foodie and could no longer enjoy his passion for cooking. Taste and smell, can you imagine.

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      • Poor guy! I am still floored by stage personas not being representative of the real person. I know people ‘act’, especially when in the public eye, but it seems a shame that this public dace is what sells; when underneath is a person more substantial and fascinating.

        I can very well understand he’d have been depresssed by such a loss. Personal passions are so important to people.

        Well, I always thought Michael a pop genius after his Max Q work, but this side of him propels him higher in my esteem.

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  6. This is brilliant. Not only are you telling us about your own particular way of perceiving, but suggesting that this is a way that others can engage with our olfactive senses beyond just “how this smells” – you’ve developed it into a kind of language. Thanks for opening my perceptions.

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    • And thank YOU for bringing your inner world to us all. I have a postcard of one of your paintings on my tool box at work. Cheers me up and I mever feel lonely. Xx

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  7. This piece is so touching and thought-provoking. Your self-awareness is really strong, and I love that you have shared yourself so authentically. Thank you! 😊

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  8. Beautiful dear Kate, we know each other from a few perfume-groups but this is what life is about : sharing and caring. Some people have to struggle a bit more in life but at the end we all are the same. No matter if you have autism, OCD or any other mental or physical ‘dis-ease’. Bravo, brave woman!

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    • Carla, mwah! You are a honey. You’ve opened my eyes to a world of new scents, and rekindled love for old ones. Thank YOU. K xx

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  9. Thank you for this beautiful post..I have a similar relationship with scents and understand your situation…You mentioned several that I do not know, but will check them out..

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  10. Wow, you and both of your children are autistic ? (or is it Asperger ?)
    A good friend of mine has a son with severe autism, and I cannot even imagine how they would manage if she and/or her other child would be autistic too…
    I’m rather sceptical about perfumes as the Lingua Franca of the world : just imagine those with underdeveloped sense of scent, and those you mentioned above, with overdeveloped sense of scent !
    How do your children cope with scents ?

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    • The Linga Franca isn’t a genuine wish. More a wistfulness anout being able to communicate with others on an even playing field, so I could feel fenuine connection with others. I rarely feel I am of the same planet as others, and life feels like the inside of my head is reality. I yearn to find a way to connect fully with another human.

      My boys are autistic too. My eldest is aurally stimulation seeking and my youngest is highly visual. We are what is called high functioning, but labels do not adequately give full notion of who we are. We three are so different, yet share an insular world we each respect. Classic autism brings a few more marked differences, but we are all of a similar ilk, I’ve found.

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  11. Thank you for sharing your story Kate. Autism is such a complex condition and it is eye opening for me to read how it has featured in your life. Your sense of smell must be so intricate and to have it as heightened as it is to the sensitivities of your children is incredible. What an interesting and fascinating journey your autism has and is taking you on. Take care 💛

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  12. Kate, I was absolutely rivited to your beautifully written piece. I always tell my non-fragrance friends that it’s “not just perfume” when they smile about my passion. Your relationship to scent certainly demonstrates that. I have several autistic students and will have to explore this aspect with them. I am so grateful that you shared this with us! Xo

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    • Thank you, Minh Scent. It isn’t just perfume, indeed! 😂 The sense of smell is so much more. It is attached to our other senses. I’m so glad you gained a bit of insight. Always comforting to know I’m making sense. Xx

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  13. Pingback: A wonderful piece about autism and perfume…. – The Fragrant Wanderer

  14. Kate, I work with autistic children. Thank you for this incredible insight! I work hard to understand how each kiddo learns in their world, they are so different! You’ve given me so much to think about. (and now I have to get a bottle of Queen of Hearts, because I love Queen, but haven’t tried that one!)

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    • Thank you, Moira. Queen of Hearts is what I imagine Queen herself is like. A cross between the muted beauty of Oscar de la Renta and the mixed spice of Coco.

      Autistic children!! I imagine your class room is quirky fun.

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  15. WOW! What an article!
    First time hearing/seeing someone giving perfume family names and I love it. They talk to us in a way of smelling and that is why many wear according to the mood, season & travel.
    Thanks for the article.

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    • You’d laugh, Hikmat – I give everyone nick names too. I am sure not everyone likes them, but it helps me to remember their names and endears that person to me more. Thankbyou for responding. K xx

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  16. Wow, I am so delighted to see someone else with autism and a marvelous love for scents in this way! I too have autism (pdd-nos) and feel the same about scents. Only I link them differently – to times. Times that made an impression, taught me, or were simply more happy.

    Thank you for sharing this with the world, I think it is very brave to do so! Love from The Netherlands ❤ xx

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    • Ilse!! Hi! How wonderful if you to introduce yourself to me! Scent and time are two very personal concepts that bring huge amounts of significant meaning. Are you busy making new memories with new scents?? Or are they more nostalgic for you? I love hearing stories of how scent is made meaningful. I’d be thrilled to hear more… That is why I love reading the comments of all the posts. K xx

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      • Hi dear, I always am still making memories with them. Even re-live them when I need them most. For instance, last Christmas I wore Slava Zaietsev’s Nikita. It was a wonderful time with family. But, this month my father passed away. The days leading up to his funeral I wore Nikita a lot then. It comforted me and made me think of better days.

        Since I am not fond of ‘touching’ others either, I prefer to be touched by scent. I think I am, just like you, by far too sensitive to touch (but not animals, like my cat! Weird, haha!).

        The trouble is, with my form of autism, and perhaps in others too, that certain senses are super sensitive, and others the complete opposite. Touch and sound are the most invasive for me, sight and scent not so. Maybe because it is automatically tempered, we can handle the impulse a little better? Giving us an sort of illusion of ‘control’, that we can choose to lead us in emotion, step by step..

        I’d love to hear more from you and your view on this, I rarely meet someone like you with the same love for fragrances 😀 XXX

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      • Oh, sound!! 😣 A total love/hate for me. That is a whole lot more complex. Scents are all pretty much welcomed for me. Sounds…a different thing.

        I am sorry to hear about your father passing. Are you able to smell Nikita again? Or have you put that in a safe place? What made you use that one? Did your father wear a scent?

        Control is an interesting concept. I’m glad you made that connection. I think it is necessary for me, as I suspect you too. I can choose how to feel by my scent choice. If I know I am going into a new environment, I can control my anxiety by focusing on my scent that I know I associate with confidence, such as Knowing by Estee Lauder. Or I can be serious and grounded by choosing a deep oud.

        Not much in life can be controlled. But there are things I can exercise control over. My response to physical abuse in the past has been to strengthen my body and posture. It does not stop things from happening, but I have more tools to use in how I respond.

        So complex to find words for, right…??! 😂😣

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  17. Kate, like so many others, I want to thank you for this article, and to express my admiration for your writing, your self-awareness and your incredible perception, and your kindness in sharing them with us.
    I wonder, do you give perfume as gifts very often? Do you test something and find that it connects immediately to someone that you care about? Perfume is always a wonderful gift to receive, but it would be so much more intense and personal to be received from someone with your feelings towards scent. I think that you would be very skilled at choosing fragrances for others.
    Thank you, again.

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    • Sue, such a lovely response. I actually have tears in my eyes; which rarely happens!

      Gosh, scents are so hard. I used to give EVERYONE perfumes as gifts when I was in my teens til my boys were born (about 29 yo). I had the happiest heart back then… I love sharing with others what brings me joy.

      I’m not so sure I am as confident in matching people to new scents any more. Well, I mean I’d be hesitant in giving them as gifts now. I smell things and KNOW they belong with someone, but with so many on the market now, it is harder than when I was younger.

      The biggest joy I receive is for someone to smell something and for me to see their eyes roll back in sheer delight. It does not get better than that.

      My mum did it with Antonia’s Flowers just yesterday. Wonderful!!

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  18. Kate, I’m very touched by your response, thank you.

    I just sneaked a look at Antonia’s Flowers, and I understand perfectly your mum’s response to it. Sounds like Heaven to me.

    I hope that you continue to share your joy with all your loved ones, and with us here.

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  19. Thank you for this fascinating piece, Kate. I think many of us experience different facets (at different intensities) of what you describe and we often find it hard to put into words exactly WHY we crave a specific perfume at a particular time. I love how you use perfume to mediate and navigate through the world. Your eloquent and heartfelt analysis is wonderful.

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    • Denise, thank you for responding. Half the enjoyment of perfume is knowing how it touches others. We each have valuable tales to tell around scents. A friend of mine can paint music, and I often wonder if some perfumers are doing the sane with scent; that is, communicating their epistemological views into a form more readily understood and translated.

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  20. Thank you for sharing this with us, Kate. Having trouble recognising faces is terrible. I often have to hear a person’s voice to place him/her. I know it is more usual for persons with autism, but others may have similar trouble. It is just not much talked about, it seems.

    I’m also always curious about how other perfume lovers use scent to express themselves, enhance a mood, create a memory or whatever

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    • Thanks, Ingeborg. I am like you; the stories attached to scent are fascinating. And I agree that many aspects of our human character are not spoken about enough. So much so I didn’t even know I had face blindness to the degree I have..til my psych pointed it out last year. I thought I had a bad memory or social awkwardness!

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  21. I love this. Thank you Kate for sharing your story; I want to say it’s unique, but I bet now that you have written about it, you will hear of more people who do the same thing.

    I’m fascinated by this interaction between your emotional-awareness and its olfactory triggers. So clever of a way to ‘hack’ your emotional system, your limbic system.

    The subject is close to me, as I wrote a book on the language of smell, called Hidden Scents. Your story is a perfect study of this ‘lingua anosmia,’ and points to the potential benefits for learning such a language.

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    • Allen, this exciting stuff. What made you delve into this line of study to begin with? Something personal, as is what often happens…?

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      • Why yes, a hypersensitivity to my (sometimes moldy) basement apartment. I found myself asking way too much, “can you smell that [mold]”? and getting a negative response. I have an architecture background; I use that and the particular smell of the mold to tell where it is, behind what walls, etc. It’s such an investigatory endeavor, smelling, because you can’t just see where it’s coming from. But once you identify it, that’s when the problem really begins, because what do you call it? “Haemophilia odor,” for example, that is a good one.

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  22. Thank you so much for your beautiful words. Thank you for inviting us into your world. The way you give words to your world, Your article is somewhat eye opening to me in my personal journey through cPTSD it makes me look at my passion in a different way, I never realized to this extent how perfumes are my safe havens in storms and how they speak to me in their own language.

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    • Verena, thank you. Safe havens are so intensely personal and are legitimised by our need for them. It is interesting how many of us call these safe spaces ‘passion’. It makes me wonder how entwined we are with safety, security and the deeper recesses of our needs.

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