Hypersensitivity and excessive devotion to childhood rituals may indicate the onset of obsessive compulsive disorder as a child ages, according to a researcher at Tel Aviv University.

Prof. Reuven Dar of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology found that adult onset could be connected to oral and tactile sensitivities in childhood that are linked with obsessive compulsive disorder, commonly referred to as OCD, a characteristic of perfectionism, indecision, inhibition, and much concern with detail.

People who suffer with OCD have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, or behaviors that drive them to do something.

Dar suspected the link between sensory processing as he worked with OCD patients who reported sensitivity to touch and taste as children.

The study suggests that children develop ritualistic behaviors to better cope with their environment when they experience heightened levels of sensitivity, potentially turning out to be OCD.

Two studies that were published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, were put together to determine the link between sensory processing, rituals, and OCD.

Survey on Ritualism, Anxiety, Sensory Events

In the first study, parents of kindergarten children were asked to complete three questionnaires on their child's 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 everyday sensory events such as being touched or exposed to unusual tastes or smells.

In the second study researchers asked 314 adult participants to answer surveys online in relation to their OCD tendencies, their anxiety levels, and their past and current sensitivity to oral and tactile stimulation.

Compulsive Tendencies Linked with Hypersensitivity

Both studies suggested that there was a strong connection between compulsive tendencies and hypersensitivity. In children, hypersensitivity was an indicator of ritualism, whereas in adults it was related to OCD symptoms, explained the authors. 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, said Dar. The authors explained that ritualism could help these children to regain a sense of control, which is also a symptom of adults with OCD.

Dar noted factors parents should watch for to correctly characterize normal behavior and potentially pathological behavior.

"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 explains. “Also, age is a factor. A habit exhibited by a five- or six-year-old is not necessarily a predictor of OCD. If the same behavior continues to the ages of eight and above, it could be a warning sign, especially if accompanied by anxiety or distress.”