All human beings communicate [as do animals, reptiles and birds] through sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. To not have any of these senses is to be considered disabled. Lack of sight or sound is to be blind or deaf. Lack of the sense of touch is called Somatosensory deficit or disability. Lack of the sense of taste is known as ageusia and the lack of the sense of smell is called anosmia. Each of these disabilities is a communication disorder.
Anosmia, or the lack of a sense of smell, often seems – to those people whose olfactory systems are in perfect working order – to be the easiest communication disorder to live with. Yet, ask anyone who has had their sense of smell taken away from them and you’ll find that this sense is seriously underrated and taken for granted.
It’s quite true that no sense of smell means the sufferer misses out on the full impact of such delicious odours as rotting meat or hour-old baby poo. It means a drive past the local garbage dump is no better or worse than a drive past a field of wildflowers. Body odour has no impact and bodily gas expulsions are a complete non-entity.
The other side of the coin is, of course, that fresh-baked bread also means nothing, flowers are perfumeless, and the smell of love-partner or child leaves no impression at all.
Smells trigger memories and feelings, evoke empathy, explore social atmospheres. Without smell, the anosmic has no or restricted access to these important facets of daily life. Pheromones, the almost undetectable scents that cause attraction between humans, are a lost cause on the anosmic. Clueless is often an apt description for the person who cannot detect the “changes in the atmosphere” caused by human interaction.
A dangerous side to being anosmic exists as well: anosmics can not smell anything, gas leaks, chemicals, smoke, rotten food, or soured liquids. Being able to smell these hazards saves lives just as often as being able to see or hear impending danger. Anosmics need sensors in their houses that can detect and warn of gas or smoke and that can pick up the odour of dangerous airborne chemicals. They need more than their own experience to help with detecting turned food or liquids. They also need recognition that they need these things and, if necessary, the financial help to acquire portable sensors that can travel with them from home to home.
A person who was born without a sense of smell doesn’t need to be told. They knew it the first time someone close by let go with some bodily wind and they looked around mystified while everybody else groaned, moaned, and blocked their noses from the smell. “What smell?” says the anosmic.
The late-onset anosmic [usually as a cause of illness or head-injury] knows it when all of a sudden their food tastes bland. This sudden loss is known to cause depression, anger and affect appetite. Suffers swing between eating too much in a search for what they’ve lost or not eating enough because their food tastes like “soggy paper” or worse. Taste is approximately 75% flavor. Flavor is smell.
The person without the sense of smell needs other people to know it. Imagine the alienation, just for a moment, if you were the only one in your family who couldn’t see or hear, but nobody believed you. Anosmics the world over have this happen to them constantly. The blind or deaf person is not required to constantly prove their disability. The anosmic does. Friends and family of the blind and deaf do not forget that their loved ones cannot see or hear. Friends and family of anosmics repeatedly forget.
The blind and deaf do not hide their disability. The anosmic quite often feels the need to do exactly that. A blind person does not have their disability trivialized nor are they told “it’s all in their head”. Too many anosmics, unfortunately, do [even by doctors who really should know better].
I do not for a second wish to imply that vision or hearing impairment is an “easy” disability. They are far from it. I use them simply to show the invisibility of anosmia, and for that matter ageusia and the extra difficulties sufferers of both deal with. Such social difficulties and the effect they have on self-esteem and self-image impact, to varying degrees, on mental health. Many ageusics [people without the sense of taste] suffer in similar ways to anosmics. Often the two disorders go hand in hand, especially if caused by head injury.
Anosmics do not need their own carspaces or even for the most part require special treatment. They do need awareness, support, solutions and respect from friends, family and doctors. What help is there for anosmics? Ask anyone afflicted with this disorder and they’ll tell you, pitifully little.