Extraordinarily Abled Complex needs, giftedness, and wellbeing

When you think of disabilities, impairments and disorders, what do you think of? Now, what if we add in the term ‘complex needs’? If you are like most people, you are thinking about differences, and what people “can’t do” or might struggle with.

Giftedness in the Context of Complex Needs

Complex needs and giftedness; to some this might seem an oxymoron but in truth this is not the case. Think of Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, and paraolympians, and you start to get a sense of where this is going. Of course, giftedness is not synonymous with eminence, fortune, glory or even achievement as the aforementioned examples may suggest. There are no guarantees of such outcomes for any gifted learner, or for that matter, necessarily any desire for them. The point here is that giftedness is a part of the complex range of ways of being that some people experience, and as such must be considered in light of rights and needs within both education and health sectors.

As Mitchell (2012, p.20) states, those with complex needs “are diverse, with varying abilities, interests, aspirations, and needs, which change over time as they mature and gain more experience” and that the “focus of planning programmes for them is on what they are capable of performing, whilst at the same time paying due regard to the challenges their behaviours create. In other words, the underlying philosophy driving the provisions of such individuals is a strengths-based model, rather than a deficit model”.

While “performing” is not a word I would choose as a way of describing an individual’s expressed abilities and qualities, as I believe this is context and motivationally dependent, I do hold firmly to the belief that amongst an individual’s complex needs, there is a need to identify and respond to giftedness when this is also a part of who they are. Why? Because If this is not understood, accepted and included in practice, if we are not seeing people holistically, those of us in supporting roles are not equipped to effectively utilise strengths-based practice or promote wellbeing in a broader sense. The result is that if we neglect to look, recognise and respond, we fail our moral, ethical and legal obligations, not only in being inclusive and responsive, but also in relation to core human rights.

The phrase inspiration porn hadn’t been coined then, but that’s what I struggled with: the fact that whatever I did had to mean something more, that I wasn’t allowed to just be another kid playing a sport that no one cared about in a failing skating rink that would become a bridal mall in a few short years. I just wanted to be normal - Hartman (2019)

Rights-based practice

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which was ratified by New Zealand in 2008, states that “The development by persons with disabilities of their personality, talents and creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential” is a right (United Nations, Article 24, 1b). This identifies the legal obligation for characteristics of giftedness to be identified within the context of formal education, beyond that of the National Administration Guidelines (1ciii) for education. Between these two legislations providers are given the clear message that the right provisions are to be put in place to ensure that all learners:

  • work at a level which provides new learning;
  • affords opportunities to develop at their preferred rate;
  • understand their unique abilities and qualities, and how this ties into their identity;
  • opportunities to link in with others who are like-minded who have a shared sense of identity, qualities, abilities and/or interests.

Defining Complex Needs

As identified in the Mental Health Commission’s report on services under challenge (as cited in Kidd & Lampshire, 2010, p.5), the “definition of “high and complex needs” has not, as yet, been clarified in the New Zealand context”. What according to Mitchell (2012, p. 7), does seem apparent however, is that a “useful working definition involves consideration of two intersecting factors: breadth (multiple needs that are interrelated) and depth (profound, severe or intense needs) in relation to challenges arising through a combination of physical, neurological, psychological and/or socio-environmental diversity. I was only able to locate only one definition for New Zealand, however this, along with a range and international examples are depicted below. The intersection of these is of paramount interest.

Complex does not necessarily mean visible

As defined by Oranga Tamariki Practice (2017), “Children and young people with complex needs may have experienced (or be experiencing) one or a combination of the factors including mental illness, physical or intellectual disability, developmental delay, substance abuse, challenging behaviour at school and/or home, poor living conditions, abuse or neglect, harmful sexual behaviour, and criminal behaviour. The level of complexity will vary depending on the child or young person, their support system (and its capabilities), and the identified need or needs.

Definitions from abroad, while having some overlap, are are quite broad ranging, highlighting the multiple facets that need to be considered. Complex Needs Capable (2013) view complex needs “as a framework for understanding multiple, interlocking needs that span health and social issues”, stating that it depends on “the individual and their situation” and their “multiple unmet needs”.The Calgary Board of Education (2017) fleshes this out further, describing those with complex needs as living with “life-long impairments that are attributable to mental, neurological and/or physical disabilities”, while acknowledging that an “innumerable variety of complex conditions and needs exist”. These may include: serious and ongoing medical conditions (Complex Care Group, 2017), addictions and developmental issues (NAVNET, 2010), sensory disabilities (Complex Care Group, 2017; Scottish Executive as cited in Mitchell, 2012), behavioural difficulties (Scottish Executive as cited in Mitchell, 2012), communication difficulties (Department of Education, 2012, Module 1.1), or “involvement in the Criminal Justice system, problems finding and maintaining housing etc.” (NAVNET, 2010). From this, we can see that the New Zealand definition encompasses a range of viewpoints, providing an inclusive and holistic definition. It would be great to see this extend further to explicitly include trauma.

Responding to co-existing and interlocking needs

In considering the importance of being appropriately responsive to identifying and responding to the rights and needs of those with complex needs, we need to hold in mind that “children and adults with disabilities are some of society’s most vulnerable citizens” (Complex Care Group, 2017). Considering the intensity of needs, we can appreciate the need for high levels of support in many cases. As NAVNET (2010) notes, these often “require individuals to access services and support from a wide variety of government systems and community organizations”, adding yet further complications to getting the support needed. This is a facet in common between the fields pertaining to both complex needs and giftedness respectively.

Specific to the education setting, is the need for “informed specific support and strategies which may include transdisciplinary input to engage effectively in the learning process and to participate actively in classroom activities and the wider community” (Department of Education, 2012, Module 1.1). This is something I highlight in my blog Good Sports.

Also lying at this intersection, is that of attainment showing as “inconsistent, presenting an atypical or uneven profile. In the school setting, learners may be working at any educational level”. How closely does this align to the concept of multiple exceptionalities, terminology discussed within the arena of research and practice in the field of gifted education particularly?


Drawing on the New Zealand definition of complex needs (Oranga Tamariki Practice Centre, 2017), we can see some significant cross-over with definitions of multi-exceptionality. Often referred to as twice or dual exceptionality, or 2E for short, multi-exceptionality, like complex needs, is a term with no clearly set global defintion. Broadly the term refers to learners who exhibit characteristics of giftedness as well as experiencing one or more of disability, impairment and/or disorder. Specifically, the Ministry of Education’s (2012) describes this set of learners as those “whose special abilities are masked by learning, behavioural, or physical disabilities” (a point we will return to) continuing on to say that “Some may be especially gifted in one aspect of learning but not in others”, a phenomenon coined ‘asynchrony’ (National Association for Gifted Children, 2016). We can see from this that while the parameters are not entirely consistent, there is definietly a clear cross-over with aspects of complex needs.

In their revised six profiles of giftedness, Betts and Neihart (2010), consider those who are twice exceptional as a distinct category; identifying feelings and attitudes common among this group of learners, behaviours we might witness and use to help identify this often hidden group - and the needs that sit behind this, along with how adults often perceive these learners. From there the reader is offered ideas pertinent to identification practices, along with some possible approaches to provision of support, both at home and school. Again, it is interesting to see the parallels, particularly in light of needs and supports. Indeed the National Association for Gifted Children (2016) states simply and as a matter-of-fact, that “Asynchrony implies greater complexity” wherein “these qualitatively different experiences may occur in all cultures, ethnic groups, and segments of society“.

Asynchrony implies greater complexity

Hiding in Plain Sight

A very important point highlighted in the video above - and one which was mentioned earlier and which I said we would come back to - is that giftedness may hide the impacts of disabilities, impairments, disorders and the like. Similarly giftedness may be hidden and go unnoticed, or in some cases, particularly with some learning disabilities, they can cancel each other out in the sense that neither are recognised. Adding further complications are the similarities between the characteristics of giftedness and medically-based conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. This serves to amplify challenges inherent in the diagnostic process; often resulting in missed or misdiagnosis. Keeping this awareness at the forefront of our minds when working with our learners/clients/family members is really important, and can greatly aide success in determining best practice.

Responsive Practice

This leads us full circle, back to the Article 24 of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which meshes beautifully with the recommendations by Betts and Neihart (2010), and those generally promoted through gifted education and which align with trauma-informed practices. It is here that we again emphasise the necessity for an inter-professional/cross-disciplinary approach which brings together the necessary aspects of community, education and health, to support the wellbeing, learning, development and success of those who are both gifted and have additional exceptionalities - with a mind to ensuring inclusion specifically, of those living with complex needs.

Case by case, person by person, and never assume "can't"

While perhaps an uncommon lived experience, giftedness and complex needs are most definitely not mutually exclusive. I have personally had the privilege of knowing several incredible gifted kids with complex needs. With every grain of my being, I can say that understanding each child’s unique set of complex needs (including their giftedness!) meant being equipped to respond in the most caring, inclusive and responsive way, and this, was absolutely critical to their feelings of being seen, validated and supported - and therefore their sense of wellbeing.


Calgary Board of Education. (2017). Complex needs.

Complex Care Group. (2017). Definition.

Complex Needs Capable. (2013). Why be complex needs capable?

Department of Education. (2012). Training materials for teachers of learners with severe, profound and complex learning difficulties.

Hartman, M. (2019). Disabled athletic, and not trying to inspire anybody.

Kidd, J. & Lampshire, D. (2010). Mental Health Commission: Services under challenge.

Ministry of Education. (2012). Gifted and talented students: Meeting their needs in New Zealand schools.

Ministry of Education. (2009). National Administration Guidelines.

Mitchell, D. (2012). Joined up: A comprehensive, ecological model for working with children with complex needs and their families/whanau.

National Association for Gifted Children. (2016). Asynchronous development.

NAVNET. (2010). What are complex needs?

Oranga Tamariki Practice Centre. (2017). Oranga Tamariki practice centre: Responding to complex needs.

United Nations. (2006). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Treaty Series, 2515, 3.

In Support of aotearoa new zealand gifted awareness week, JUNe 2020

Vanessa White is a specialist educator in gifted education, who advocates fiercely for the infusion of trauma-informed practices across all spheres of practice and life. She runs Lifting the Lid, a gifted education consultancy service, along-side Hello Calm, an endeavour which is aimed at supporting young people who experience anxiety and/or live with the ongoing impacts of trauma, and the resulting dysregulated stress response. Vanessa will be speaking at the upcoming Gifted Wellbeing conference being hosted by the Aotearoa New Zealand Association for Gifted Children in September 2020, where she will present on anxiety and resilience in gifted kids.


Created with images by Dylan Thomas / Photography - "Morocco, Essaouira, Disabled Street Artist" • Joseph Gonzalez - untitled image • Audi Nissen - "Womens wheelchair basketball" • Brad Neathery - "Heart on Paper" • Anna Kolosyuk - untitled image