child with ocd washing hands
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Obsessive-compulsive disorder – usually known as ‘OCD’ – is a common mental health condition characterised by persistent and unwanted, distressing thoughts. Though these intrusive thoughts can be about anything, people often worry, for example, that:

  • They will lose control
  • Harm someone
  • They have been contaminated by germs

In an attempt to alleviate these worries, sufferers develop compulsions – rituals or repetitive actions – to make the distressing thoughts go away. They may decide, for instance, that they need to touch certain objects in a particular order or constantly check doors and windows to make sure they’re locked. They may wash their hands excessively or count to a certain number in their head.

OCD is an Anxiety Disorder

ocd sufferer overwhelmed

OCD is always rooted in anxiety, says Craig Shirley, a therapist specialising in treating the condition and the co-founder of The OCD Treatment Centre. It often develops in childhood or early adulthood, he says, as a response to stressful life-events. “It’s a coping strategy, a way of feeling in control,” he points out. “OCD is a cycle – there’s the trigger, the obsession, the emotional response, the behaviour and finally the relief before it all starts up again. You have to break the cycle to combat it.”

Craig suffered with OCD himself for many years and though it no longer troubles him, he remembers only too well the ‘absolute terror’ of being at the mercy of his fears and compulsions. “It’s like having a radio on your shoulder, pumping noise at you all the time, getting louder and louder,” he says. “On top of that, your emotions feel five or six times more intense than usual. OCD can chip away at your identity. You’re so exhausted by your own behaviour that you lose track of who you are.”

The Connection Between Special Needs and OCD

anxious girl

Many of the children and adults seeking help at Craig’s clinic also have special needs. “There’s definitely a co-morbidity with autism,” he comments. “People with ASD are often anxious and overwhelmed with life. Just like anyone else, OCD can develop as a way for them to feel in control.”

Although one of the common features of autism is a fixation on ‘special interests’, OCD obsessions are very different, Craig explains. “We talk about ‘desire versus fear’,” he elaborates. “If an autistic person was obsessed with trains, for example, but this made them happy, we would say it was based on ‘desire’. If, on the other hand, the person couldn’t stop thinking that something bad was going to happen on a train, that would be based on ‘fear’ and more likely to be a feature of OCD.”

Other special needs might also trigger OCD, he continues. A child with ADHD, struggling to sit still and concentrate at school, a teenager with dyslexia trying to keep up with written work, or a young person with hearing impairment, could just as easily develop obsessive-compulsive behaviour as a result of ongoing stress.

OCD Can Impact Education

girl withdrawn at school

SEN Tutor Effy is a qualified teacher with two master’s degrees – one in special needs and the other in autism – who also has nearly a decade’s experience working with autistic students. She is currently working towards a PhD looking at ASD and mental health. She agrees that OCD can interfere in all aspects of a young person’s life including their social interaction and academic performance.

“Students who understand their condition can feel ashamed and withdraw from people,” she says. “A lot of people with OCD think they have to be perfect in everything they do, which can aggravate their symptoms, so teachers can help by breaking tasks into smaller sections so there’s no overwhelm. If the child doesn’t like an aspect of a lesson, teachers can skip that section or find a way around it – typing on the computer instead of writing by hand, for example.”

Helping Young People With OCD

teacher helping child

It’s essential, Effy continues, for teaching staff to be empathetic to a student with OCD. Sometimes it may even be possible, she adds, for a tutor to work with the young person to help them devise less-intrusive rituals though this approach won’t work with all students, she cautions.

Craig Shirley advises families to get help for their child’s OCD as soon as possible and that a combination of medication and talking therapy usually works best. It’s also important, he says, to educate the person on their condition in a way that matches their age and intellectual ability.

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