Changing the game in disability support

Rebecca Perkins and Christina Keeble.

By Danielle Kutchel

Getting a diagnosis for your child’s additional needs can be a complex and demoralising process – as Christina Keeble knows all too well.

When her child was diagnosed during her first year of school, Ms Keeble found herself struggling to cope with the barrage of negative language, and the lack of support available.

What made it worse was that Ms Keeble felt she should have been better prepared for what was to come – having worked in the industry for many years as a teacher and autism and neurodivergent consultant, acting as a sounding board for other parents looking to get their own children assessed and diagnosed, she had thought she was mentally ready.

“But still, in the end it really affected me emotionally because of the way it happened, the way language was used and the way it was explained,” she said.

“I thought this was a rubbish process to go through.”

Her friend and colleague Rebecca Perkins, who runs the support and consulting organisation My Special Child, had an almost identical experience with her own children.

It was this shared experience that spurred them on to change the way the system works for families and children with additional needs.

Together, they’re set to launch Australia’s first one-stop-shop support hub, the National PEKE Centre, in Cranbourne on Monday 18 January.

The National PEKE Centre will provide holistic, customised support across the lifespan from diagnosis to strength-based therapies and family supports, specialising in autism, ADHD, anxiety, sensory challenges and regulation support.

The duo, both of whom are neurodivergent themselves, believes the PEKE Centre will revolutionise the diagnosis and support process for children and their families.

The centre will house a full allied health team including occupational therapists, speech pathologists, psychologists and paediatricians, as well as support specialists to help guide parents and provide an overarching view of the services available and the next steps to take.

But what makes the PEKE Centre different is its focus on collaboration between all health professionals – so that families receive consistent advice from each one they see – and the emphasis on empowerment.

“Most importantly, it’s all positive,” Ms Perkins said.

“When parents come to us and get a diagnosis of autism, instead of it being a negative thing … they’ll go away feeling positive and empowered an excited for the future.”

That’s not to say the centre will downplay the challenges these families may face in future; rather, these are addressed with more positive framing designed to build children up so they feel good about themselves.

The new centre is based in Monahans Road in Cranbourne, and there are plans to roll others out across Victoria – and eventually, Australia and even the world.

“It baffles my brain it hasn’t already been done, and it baffles my brain that it isn’t just standard practice throughout the world,” Ms Perkins said.

“Surely having a centre where you have everything under one roof, where everyone works together, having someone there to support you … surely it should be standard practice but it’s not anywhere.”

Already, the PEKE Centre has attracted plenty of interest from parents with the occupational therapist booked out for the opening week.

The centre accepts referrals and is able to take bookings over the phone or via email.

Ms Perkins and Ms Keeble said their personal perspective as parents and professionals in the disability service industry will help inform the practises at the PEKE Centre.

“We’ll be there to support [parents] and help them understand,” Ms Keeble said.

“The most important thing for parents is to know that when they come to us, their lives will change and they will feel … positive and empowered and better, and so will their child,” Ms Perkins added.

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