Petra Ecclestone isn’t just a pretty, famous face. She’s also a fiercely private, single mum-of-three who loves a good cause. We find out why early intervention for children with autism is next on her list…
In the past couple of years, Petra Ecclestone has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Her house in Chelsea was petrol bombed, she’s dealt with a nasty divorce battle, and now she’s a single, 29-year-old mum-of-three moving to live in her mega mansion in Los Angeles. But, in the midst of all that, the daughter of 87-year-old former Formula One boss, Bernie Ecclestone, has actually found time to do some good through the Petra Ecclestone Foundation, which supports children and young people affected by autism, meningitis and other related conditions. (Petra almost died age 14 of viral meningitis herself.)
The latest project she’s working on is the opening of Petra’s Place centres across the UK, the first of which will open in October in Kensington and Chelsea. It will offer early intervention and individual programmes to children on the autistic spectrum aged 18 months to four years old. And it’s something she strongly believes will make the kids’ lives better.
Despite the frequent news splashes, Petra actually guards her family’s privacy fiercely (she even has a private Instagram account). Yet, just as the first Petra’s Place is prepared for opening, she finds time to chat to Absolutely Mama about why she’s taken on this new venture…
Q Why is raising awareness of autism spectrum disorder so important to you?
A Through other parents who are friends I learned how difficult it was to diagnose and treat children with autism. I was in the US at the time and started looking into the situation further. In America they have so many incredible therapies that we lack in the UK.
I met families with children with autism and found out the earlier you intervene the better it can be for the child. This experience inspired me to create the first early intervention autism centre in the UK.
Q Day to day, what kind of involvement do you have in the Petra Ecclestone Foundation and Petra’s Place?
A I’m a bit of a workaholic. I’m involved daily. Currently I’m being updated on the build, the charity’s progress, the child selection process/applications and am launching a hip T-shirt campaign created by the artist Mr Brainwash to raise awareness of Petra’s Place. I also oversee the website creation, branding and social media. I like to be abreast of everything.
Q What are you most proud of when it comes to the new centre?
A I suppose I’m most proud that we are bringing treatments, which could change a child’s life, to the UK to every child regardless of their circumstances. There is a serious shortage of early intervention therapy centres for children on the autism spectrum in London and the UK.
Q Why do you think until now there has been little provision in London for early intervention for children with autism?
A Our NHS service is amazing. I use it regularly, but, as we know, it’s overstretched. I’m not sure why there’s little provision, but I’m delighted to help make the situation better.
Q Why and how can early intervention help young children, in your opinion?
A Early intervention is a priority because children’s minds are still very malleable, so Petra’s Place will capitalise on the potential of learning that an infant brain has. In addition, leaving a child without early intervention risks the child feeling demoralised and losing self-confidence and self-esteem. Petra’s Place will avoid these harmful side-effects of lack of support, to help children lead better lives as they grow up.
Early intervention for children with autism has been around for over 40 years. At the beginning it was a strict type of behaviour therapy, but nowadays the methods are more natural, pleasant and fun for the children.
Some early studies from the University of California, Los Angeles, show that children supported and educated early made better progress in comparison to children who didn’t. Some recent studies suggest the benefits can continue even years after the intervention stops
Although not all experts agree how much or in what way early intervention can help, there is little doubt that it can be useful. The brains of very young children learn fast and are still quite malleable. We want to make use of this opportunity and prepare pre-schoolers for their future learning and schooling experience.
Early Intervention is, in many ways, about engaging children with autism in therapeutic activities and games. This takes time, people with the right skills, and a place where the child feels at ease and the parents feel they can trust.
Q How would someone know if it might help their child?
A There are different types of models, methods and therapists. Also children with autism are very different in their learning style. Families, of course, differ in the way they support their child and their resources. So it’s hard to tell how a particular intervention might work for a certain child; there are just too many factors involved.
But, most scientists agree it is important to: 1) start early; 2) use an approach that’s backed by science; 3) involve the family fully in the therapeutic programme so the child continues to learn at home.
We believe, with the right support, all children with autism can learn many basic skills, skills that will later become the building blocks for communication, play, learning and social interactions.
It seems that it doesn’t always matter as much how severe the difficulties are at the beginning. Every child can make progress and learn, albeit at a different pace. Sometimes the pace can be faster and exceed expectations – that’s why we don’t exclude children with more severe difficulties.
We aim high but have regard for the learning style of every child. If we see that a child is not making the expected progress with our first approach, we try a modified or different approach that might suit their learning needs. We don’t give up or put limits on how much progress a pre-schooler can make.
Q What else are you working on at the moment?
A I have three young children and I am settling them into a new school, so that’s a lot!
Q How do you find it, juggling your many responsibilities in work and with your family?
It keeps me on my toes! I go to bed very, very early.
Q What advice do you have for other busy, working, modern mamas?
A Be flexible. Spend quality time with your children, make an effort to set that time aside, as they are the most important. Stay focused on a few professional things and try not to take on too much or it can be overwhelming!
Q How do you keep your own kids grounded considering your fame and constant media attention, particularly during difficult times?
A I’m a very private person and rarely discuss my family or give interviews unless it’s about the Foundation. They are kids like every other. At the end of the day they get as excited about an ice cream or a puppy like every other kid. I’m strict and keen on good manners. I’m not sure they’re aware they’re privileged. We try and keep things simple in my household.