Reluctantly, I was travelling in a packed train the other day. I was back home again with my parents and we were on the way to the hospital for my dad’s surgery the day after. I cursed as I walked down the stairs to the train station, fully aware that it was peak hour and anticipating a hell of a ride. We were in the last compartment and after a few stops, I was lucky enough to find a vacant spot in the corner between the emergency exit and seats where I could fit myself in and stand without getting into physical contact with others. Before that, we were in a bus loaded with students who smell of sweat like milk turned sour. With its tropical climate, heat and humidity, Singapore is a city where things, even people take on a bad smell easily. That weekend before, we had dinner in the mall and as we walked into the busy restaurant, I sensed the lack of air-conditioning and the smell of stale air. I didn’t smell the aroma of food, I smelled the body odour of the people in the restaurant lingering in the air. It was off-putting but I tried not to let these unpleasant sensory experiences overshadowed the family time although I sometimes lose my temper.
When I say I’m sensitive to smells, many people can relate on a level, my friends complain about the smell of body odour on public transports too. I get it, most people would agree that body odour is unpleasant, there is nothing unusual with my aversion to smell in this respect. But I’m not just talking about unpleasant smells. I caught the morning bus to the hospital the next morning. The bus was full with commuters to work. A passenger took up the seat in front of me and immediately I felt the blockage of air flow. It was a different kind of smell to the after-school/work transport but I was equally put off by the smell and here I’m talking about smells like perfume, deodorant, shampoo, body wash ~ smells that are pleasant to most people, even smells of products that I use. The thing is a smell may be pleasant on its own but when it is mixed and overloaded with the smell of hundred others, it turns bad and so do I. Sensory issues are common amongst autistics although I do not know enough about the research in this area to explain why. But if you ask me what is it about smell that I find disturbing, other than they are unpleasant, I’d say they are unpredictable and intrusive. Perhaps they stem from my needs for space and solitude. The same can be said of noise and unwanted physical contact. The smells are distracting and an intrusion of my space. I always bring a travel size perfume with me or a scented lotion or hand sanitiser. When I have too much of the smell of others, I sniff or sprinkle a few drops of perfume. I know adding more smells into the environment is hardly the best solution, I’m likely to end up overpowered by my own smell but this is me trying to assert some control over the environment. Sensory sensitivities and sensitivity to smell isn’t necessarily just about the bad and ugly smells but the good smells too.