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
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
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.
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 problems, she
says, may be evident during the first year of life. …