Background: In order to fully specify the profiles of risk and protective factors of developmental disorders, a better understanding of the conditions under which they co-occur is required. So far, empirical evidence on comorbidities of specific learning disorders in arithmetic, reading and spelling is scarce.
Methods: Prevalence and gender ratios of specific learning disorders in arithmetic (AD), reading (RD), and spelling (SD) and their co-occurrence were assessed in a large (N = 2586) population-based sample of elementary school children and in a subsample of 293 children with at least one learning disorder (LD-sample). A questionnaire on familial transmission was given to a subsample of 256 parents of children with a learning disorder and 146 typically developing children.
Results: The rates of deficits in arithmetic, reading, or spelling were four to five times higher in samples already experiencing marked problems in one academic domain compared to the full population. Thus, comorbidity of learning disorders was confirmed in a fairly standard school population. Rates of co-occurrence decreased for AD and RD, but not isolated SD when more stringent cutoff criteria were applied, suggesting that the comorbidity of arithmetic and spelling disorder may be more strongly biologically mediated than the comorbidity of arithmetic and reading disorder. We found a preponderance of girls with AD and boys with SD. These imbalanced gender ratios were especially marked for isolated problems, while for comorbid problems gender ratios were mostly balanced with the exception of deficits in arithmetic and reading (but not spelling) which were more typical for girls. The parental questionnaire provided evidence for disorder-specific familial transmission and co-segregation of arithmetic and literacy deficits.
Conclusions: Comorbidities of learning disorders are not artificial. They are the result of a complex interplay between both general and disorder-specific aetiological factors.