Childhood rituals, such as routines for meals, baths and bedtimes, are a basic part of healthy behavioral development. But when combined with hypersensitivity to touch or taste, it could be an early warning sign of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a new study suggests.
The study by Reuven Dar, Ph.D., of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Psychology shows that hypersensitivity and excessive adherence to childhood rituals can foreshadow the onset of OCD. Dar first suspected the link while working with OCD patients who reported sensitivity to touch and taste as children.
In the study, which appears in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Dar and his colleagues see a direct correlation between sensory processing — the way the nervous system manages incoming information — and ritualistic and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
When children are extremely sensitive to certain types of touch or smell, they can feel that they are being attacked or that the environment is threatening them, Dar said. Ritualism could develop as a defense mechanism, helping children regain a sense of control, which is a symptom of adults with OCD.
The researchers devised two studies to map the connection between sensory processing, rituals, and OCD. In the first, parents of kindergarten children were asked to complete three questionnaires on their child’s behavior: their level of ritualism, such as the need to repeat certain acts or to order objects in a particular way; their level of anxiety, with questions relating to reaction to strangers, worrying about outcomes of events, and attachment to family members; and last, their reactions to sensory events, such as being touched or exposed to unusual tastes or smells.
In the second study, the researchers asked 314 adults to answer online surveys about their OCD tendencies, their anxiety levels, and their past and current sensitivity to oral and tactile stimulation.
Results from both studies indicated a strong connection between compulsive tendencies and hypersensitivity, the researchers claim. In children, hypersensitivity was an indicator of ritualism, while in adults it was related to OCD symptoms.
Dar was quick to note that all children have habits and preferences, and they’re not all precursors to OCD. So what should parents watch for to determine if they should be worried about their child?
“If you see that a child is very rigid with rituals, becoming anxious if unable to engage in this behavior, it is more alarming,” he said.
Age is also a factor. A habit exhibited by a 5- or 6-year-old is not necessarily a predictor of OCD, but if the same behavior continues in children ages 8 and above, it could be a warning sign, especially if accompanied by anxiety or distress, he said.