Not just an occasional sniff, but do you frequently and intensely smell your hair because this brings immense joy?
You may be autistic if this behavior also comes with other lifelong peculiar traits and especially if you’ve felt “different,” misplaced or out of synch with people since childhood.
My earliest memory of aggressively smelling my hair, which was often accompanied by the gleeful out-loud question, “How come my hair SMELLS SO GOOD?!!” was age 17, alone in my college dorm room.
I did this all the time and derived great joy. And I’ve done it since; a big fixture in my life.
Little did I know that this behavior was driven by autism, which I would not be diagnosed with until many years later.
Now if you’re in the habit of smelling your hair, is this a strong case for Autism Spectrum Disorder?
It depends on the context. In my case, I’m pretty sure that if a psychologist who specializes in assessing for ASD one day observed me in full hair-smelling mode (which often comes with various vocalizations in a variety of weird voices), they’d suspect I’m autistic.
My hair smelling is daily, throughout the day, and often comes with affirmations in an odd voice (e.g., “The texture! The texture!”), and sometimes is accompanied by a secondary repetitive behavior: gently chewing on my tongue.
According to a thread on reddit, here’s why some women smell their hair:
- To see if it picked up a bad odor like smoke or fried foods
- To test a new hair product’s fragrance
- To see if a hair product fragrance is still working
- To make sure it doesn’t smell bad
- Because it’s the only good-smelling thing in a stinky environment
- Because it smells good
None of the comments describe smelling one’s hair to the extent that I do. Smelling my hair brings me intense joy and self-regulation.
It’s a full-blown autistic stim. Stim stands for self-stimulating (self-regulating) behavior.
“Stims do not always make sense to other people, but things that are calming and repetitive to one person can certainly be a stim,” says Dr. Jessica Myszak, licensed psychologist, and director of The Help and Healing Center, whose practice is mostly autism assessment for adults.
“Stims with attention to sensory aspects can sometimes be especially appealing to people — fiddling with objects, tapping and listening to a particular sound, or smelling or tasting something — as long as it is comforting and involves repetition, a stim for one person could be very different from a stim for another person.
“In particular, smelling things can be a cross between self-stimulatory behaviors and attention to sensory input.”
Autistic people engage in all kinds of stimming. NOTE: This does NOT – I repeat – NOT mean anything sexually arousing. Don’t let the terms “stim” or “stimulating” mislead you.
Stimming means self-regulating. However, autistic people will cite a variety of reasons for stimming such as happiness or eagerness, anxiety or stress, subconscious habit or that it feels like the natural thing to do.
Another reason is that it feels good. In my case, smelling my hair creates an incredible physical experience. IT SMELLS SOOOOO GOOD!!! What more can I say?
Actually, there is more: The texture is exceedingly unusual. It’s voluminous and almost like cotton candy.
The stimming isn’t just olfactory; it’s tactile: the feel of my hair against my face and in my hands.
Every day, all throughout the day, even when I’m on my treadmill, I’ll be taking big sniffs of my very sweet-scented hair.
Many autistic people rock, spin, jump, sway, flap their hands and flick their fingers.
They may do all sorts of tapping with their fingers and feet, movements with their legs, repeatedly clicking their teeth or chewing their tongue (gently), rubbing a knee, twiddling their fingers, pressing their fingertips to the opposite hand, clapping or rubbing their hands, tapping their face, humming, grunting, sucking on fingertips and using “fidget” gadgets such as a twirling device, a squishy ball and a cord that can be twisted into different shapes.
Many autistic people deliberately suppress their stims in public. At home, it’s Stim City.
Smelling your hair: Could you be on the Spectrum?
• Do you engage in other stims? Are you a rocker? Do you get a sense of self-regulation from wringing your hands?
Do you feel a need to twitch your mouth, massage your fingertips with your tongue, bounce a leg up and down or conduct other prolonged repetitive movements while using a computer, watching TV, reading or driving?
• Have you always felt “different” or wondered if you were an alien from another planet sent to Earth to observe humans?
• Has the common behavior of people always baffled you?
• Have you been called out on making rude or blunt comments that offended others, even though this wasn’t your intention?
• Does eye contact feel like a task or formality rather than an instinctive response?
• Do you hate having to make big changes or do something a new way?
• Do you embrace routine and sameness and even eat the same foods every day?
• Do you detest clothing tags or certain types of fabrics?
• Do people think you’re weird, odd or strange?
• Have you always struggled to fit in?
• Do you frequently rehearse your responses to anticipated conversations inside your head in the name of efficient delivery?
• Do pop culture and trends perplex you?
• Do you hate sounds that don’t bother other people? Can you hear things that they can’t?
• Do you tend to get obsessed or hyperfixated on topics that interest you, with people thinking you talk about them too much or at inappropriate times?
Let me stop here. The above are all characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder. There are many, many more.
If you answered “Yes” to most of these, you’ll want to take an online autism test, such as the Autism Spectrum Quotient. The test is not diagnostic; it’s only a guideline.
Once I started my diagnostic journey for autism, I began realizing, “Hey, all my hair smelling – that’s a stim! If that’s not classic stimming behavior, I don’t know what IS!”
Autistic people have been known to smell other things in a way that goes beyond what neurotypicals would do, such as sniffing at any food or most foods before they begin eating.
They may feel an insatiable need to sniff a particular scented candle in their home, or become transfixed sniffing the pages of a new book or magazine, or even their fingers.
Look. If your hair smells good, it’s normal to take a good sniff here and there.
But if you do it to the extent that you just KNOW that if a camera were rolling on you, people would think you were really weird about it, AND if you have other oddball lifelong traits and social difficulties — hmmm…you actually could be autistic.
Dr. Jessica Myszak is a psychologist who specializes in autism assessment for both children and adults. She sees clients in-person in the Chicago area and over telehealth in 31 states and counting! Learn more about her practice at helpandhealingcenter.com.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.