IT'S BEEN 10 years since Pam Kortum of Des Peres discovered that her older son had learning disabilities. She vividly remembers her reaction to the news.
"I became hysterical," she says.
Nothing in John Kortum's early childhood had seemed amiss. He was an impulsive, high-energy kind of kid, his mother recalls, not one to sit down and look at a book or work a puzzle.
But his preschool years were happy ones. John made friends easily, he was athletic, and if he didn't know his ABCs when he started kindergarten, so what?
By the end of first grade, though, when he still wasn't able to read, Kortum became concerned. John was evaluated both by a private psychologist and Special School District of St. Louis County.
The consensus: auditory processing problems.
Before she could help her son, Kortum says, she had to overcome a few hurdles of her own - first ignorance, then denial.
"I knew nothing about learning disabilities. I thought they were a form of mental retardation. I shed a lot of tears, worrying that John would never be normal, never go to college," she says.
"Because learning disabilities are hidden handicaps, I also found it hard to accept that something was really wrong with my child. I kept hoping it would just go away."
Despite her denial, Kortum began reading everything she could find about learning disabilities. Then she redirected her energies, determined to become her son's best advocate. By the time John was 7, he was attending The Churchill School, a private school for children with learning disabilities, and beginning to compensate for his weaknesses.
Three years later, Kortum found out her younger son, Christopher, also had learning disabilities.
"I was even more devastated with Chris," she says. "We'd already spent so much time and money on John. I remember thinking I had enough emotional energy to do this for one child, but I wasn't sure I could do it for two."
She did, of course. Today John, 16, is a sophomore at Parkway South High School. He's an honor roll student, doing well with minimal help from Special School District. And he's starting to think about college.
Christopher, 13, attends Parkway South Middle School and is a good student, too. Kortum attributes his success to his incredible determination, to the modifications that regular classroom teachers make to accommodate his disabilities, and to his daily, after-school visits to a private tutor.
Having a learning disability, says Kortum, "is like having asthma - it doesn't go away, but treated properly, it doesn't have to be debilitating, either."
Both John and Christopher are succeeding despite their learning problems. Why?
The main reason is that they've had everything that Dr. Larry Silver, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, maintains is crucial for a good outcome - early intervention, appropriate services, self-understanding and, perhaps most important, a parent who refuses to give up.
***** Early Intervention
What causes learning disabilities?
"People have tried to link them to everything from the red dye in foods to the fluorescent lights in the classroom," says Richard Lavoie, director of Riverview School in East Sandwich, Mass.
"The truth is, the jury is still out, and we're probably a couple of generations away from the answer."
What experts do know is that detecting a learning disability as early as possible can have a tremendous impact on a child's life.
How early is early?
Conventional thinking used to be that if a child exhibited problems in school by third grade, intervention should be considered. Not anymore.
Local speech pathologist Joan Slein believes that most learning disabilities are language-based. Some communication …