Supporting Neurodivergent Youth in Schools with Vanessa Castañeda Gill
June 7, 2022
Supporting Neurodivergent Youth in Schools with Vanessa Castañeda Gill

Many of us go into our fields because we’re inspired by someone who supported us as youth or we see something that we want to fix. For Vanessa Castañeda Gill, this week’s guest, it was something else. She wanted to fix herself.

After a neurodivergent diagnosis at 14, then hiding that diagnosis from everyone but her family for more than six years, Vanessa was looking for a way to be successful. She had heard so many stories about those with a similar diagnosis that she tried to fit that mold. Through studying neuroscience, Vanessa hoped to fix herself. What she discovered instead was that she wasn’t broken at all but rather could have used some additional resources and support as a teen so she wouldn’t feel so alone.

That’s where Social Cipher came from. And this week on the podcast, Vanessa is sharing more about how her platform supports neurodivergent youth and their parents and community.

The structure of Vanessa’s team is incredibly unique and it’s just what an organization that supports differently wired kids needs to be successful.

Listen in this week and learn more about how to step up and support those with neurodivergence.

About Vanessa Castañeda Gill:

It’s Vanessa Castañeda Gill’s mission to unite her passions for art and stories in innovative ways that help people. Learning from her experiences growing up on the autism spectrum, she founded Social Cipher: a game-based social-emotional learning platform for neurodiverse youth and the professionals who work with them. Her 50% neurodivergent team recently released their game series, Ava: a space-pirate adventure that explores social challenges through the eyes of an autistic protagonist. Vanessa and her team have earned recognition as Forbes 30 Under 30s, AT&T Aspire Fellows, and Facebook Global Gaming Citizens.

Jump in the Conversation:

[1:50] – Why Vanessa is interested in neurodiverse youth
[5:26] – Social Cipher Platform
[7:15] – Parents can use the system too
[8:08] – Collaboration with big organizations
[9:22] – A neurodivergent team
[10:43] – Adding to the platform
[12:24] – How to support neurodivergent kids to the fullest
[15:12] – Turbo Time
[18:17] – What people need to know about neurodivergence
[21:13] – How to be an activist in supporting neurodivergence in schools
[23:23] – Vanessa’s Magic Wand
[24:37] – Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at Education Evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of at active, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:07
Hi, Vanessa, it is so good to have you on Education Evolution today.

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 1:12
Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here. Yes.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:16
And listeners. today I’m chatting with a young entrepreneur, Vanessa Castañeda Gill, the NBA in there makes me think I have to go back to my Spanish lessons. Perfectly. She’s the CEO of social cipher, which is a game based social emotional learning platform for neurodiverse youth, and the professionals that work with them. And let’s hear what Vanessa is creating. So Vanessa, we know many of our young ones need help developing social communication skills. Where does your interest in neuro divergent youth and social communication come from?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 1:55
Yeah, so I actually was one of those youth. So I was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, when I was 14, I had a really difficult time with a lot of the stereotypes of both of those neurodivergent conditions, especially when it came to just like the representation that was available for me. And that was kind of all that I had, in terms of guidance. It was, you know, the support of my mom and supporting my family, which was great. But it was also the fact that just every representation of autistic people, every stereotype at the time, was pretty much just like white boys who were savant or just like cold and calculating robots. And that’s all I had. And so I felt that because that’s all I knew of autism, that that’s who I had to be. And so I really just closed myself off to emotion, because I thought I couldn’t do it. And I thought I couldn’t connect. Oh, yeah. And so I will, yeah, this will get me through, and I just gotta be like this lone genius and just power through. And that’s how I will be successful because I can’t be successful any other way. And, of course, that did not work. You need that human connection, you need to be able to be open and vulnerable with at least someone. And so yeah, and so for me, I did the exact opposite, right? Like, I ended up being so ashamed of my diagnosis that I hid it from everyone for six years, from ages 14 to almost 21. And I fell into a lot of mental health issues. So you know, throughout my high school and some of my college experience, I had low self esteem, depression and anxiety, all on top of it. And I ended up originally going to school to become a neuroscience researcher, and like, still have a huge passion for that. And that’s what I ended up doing. But my intention before was in the reason that I went to neuroscience was to kind of fix my brain and to try to, you know, it’s sad. But what I learned instead, which was much better was that I learned that I could connect with people. And I was never a broken person, I just learned very differently. And that actually my passion for neuroscience, my research, and it kind of sparked that whole thing. And so I ended up putting my research experience and my personal experience together. And that’s how we came up with social cipher. And I actually, you know, my co founders, were actually some of the closest friends that I had starting out, and they were the first people outside of my family that I revealed my conditions to, and that’s really was kind of the start at all.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:30
Wow, what a story and sad but true. I mean, my daughter got diagnosed 16 years ago, and there was autism knowledge is growing really quickly. But after a while, I asked her counselor, so if there’s they’re supposed to be twice exceptional. She’s not the typical computer coding genius, like you see in media and everything. What’s her gift and the counselors like, oh my gosh, she’s the kindest kid I’ve ever known. That’s a gift. It doesn’t always have to be a math Is there a science whiz? And it doesn’t always have to be that savant, you know that there’s an area that’s like off the charts. There’s so many stereotypes that we’re breaking and gender is a huge one. I, I love that you’re breaking stereotypes. Tell us about what you have created. I want I want some details, because you showcased it to me. And I got to take a peek at it. And I was so impressed. I want others to know.

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 5:26
Yes, totally. So social ciphers platform, we have these three different parts. We have our game series, Ava, we have our curriculum for social emotional learning. And we have this companion application. And I’ll go through all through three of these. So the one that we’re most known for is our game series. So Ava is all about an autistic protagonist. She’s a 12 year old girl, and she has this passion for mapmaking. And it takes place in this space pirate world where, you know, she’s tasked with onboarding and determining whether all these other space pirates are good for her crew. And it’s this entire adventure where she’s going through all these different social situations. She’s finding ourselves, she’s battling self doubt, she’s really finding this community. And the magic of our game is that we have these two core elements. So one of them is that we have platforming. So if you think about like Super Mario Brothers, it’s kind of that jumping around, she’s got a grappling hook. And there are a lot of representative elements of the neurodivergent experience that are developed throughout the platforming of our game, which are really cool. And then the other part that is super exciting for us is the dialogue system. So as Eva goes through, it’s all about player choice, right? So a player can make a choice to recruit a pirate that is like, much more designed to be a good and respectful and trustworthy, cremate. But they can also, you know, choose to recruit someone that is kind of a jerk. And that is their choice. And there are different ways that you can learn and repeat and really unpack all that. And we think that that is what makes really interesting conversation between therapists, teachers, and their students.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 7:09
So awesome. And I understand sometimes parents use this.

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 7:13
Yeah, we actually have quite a few parents. And we’re actually developing a parent models so that folks can use this in families and at home and having a separate Parent Guide. But right now it’s currently used in tandem with we’re in a little over 35 schools and therapy centers across the US. Yeah, and along with that game series, which is our huge thing, every, every episode has different social emotional competencies that it focuses on. So we have two episodes out. One is all about trust, like building trustworthy relationships, identifying who is trustworthy and advocating for yourself when someone is not being a trustworthy person. And then we also have our newest episode, which just came out, and that was all about coping with change and trying new things. So it’s been pretty great.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 8:01
Wow, definitely. Hey, I hear you’re getting some good press, and you’re even possibly being tagged to collaborate with some great organizations? Who’s kind of keeping an eye on you?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 8:15
Yeah. So in the past, we’ve actually been recognized by Unity by Forbes and by at&t, and they’ve given us recognition and also backed us with funding, which has been incredible. And most recently, I just got back from Denmark. Because we were at Lagos play for all accelerator program. We were chosen as one of 25 different ventures to go to Lego headquarters and learn all about principles of learning through play, and inclusive universal design, which is incredible. And yeah, now we’re on our way figuring out, you know, if we’re part of the next phase where a partnership is going to happen, so exciting stuff. I mean, it’s it was just amazing to be recognized. And just to be in Lagos community now, in addition to all the other amazing organizations that continue to support us,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 9:07
that is huge. Wow, congratulations. Yes. And also you walk your talk. It’s not that you’re like this neurodivergent figureheads, for your organization. Tell me about the makeup of your team.

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 9:23
Oh, yeah. So I mean, we, this, this work has to be done in tandem with neurodivergent. Folks, and it has to be done by neurodivergent folks, or at least, you know, a range of different neuro types. And so for us, we have a 50% neurodivergent team. We’re super proud of that. And I think almost all of our educational professionals that are working on the curriculum on the social emotional learning, all of them are actually neurodivergent. So you know, we have folks like Dr. Lucas Harrington, who is our social emotional learning consultant, he brings brilliant expertise. He’s An artistic psychologist himself so also brings that personal expertise. And we also have some amazing curriculum and just educational roadmapping people that are also very divergent. And so yeah, it’s amazing. I think having half of us that are from all these different neuro types is so incredibly important and just, I think brings so much to our products that you really just can’t replicate in other products without that representation without those people on your team.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 10:29
Absolutely. Good for you. That’s, that’s the best of both worlds. You’re putting it together. So what’s next? You talked about a parent component. What’s next for your mission?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 10:42
Yeah, so we are producing our next episode, which is really exciting. And there may be a new an entirely new gameplay mode that we might be coming out with. Yeah, so that’ll be that’s very exciting. It’s in the works. We actually have our developer who’ve never met in person, or amazing developer, Joel, will actually be coming over to California to meet with us for the first time, like next week. So it’s very exciting. And that whole week, together, we’re going to spend really hashing out how this new gameplay mode is going to work. Yeah, we have a lot of things coming for parents. There are a lot of new partnerships that we’re pursuing, which are really exciting. We actually just came out on a podcast with learn play Thrive this morning, which was super awesome. Wow. Yeah, so things are very exciting. Also, you know, play testing for the new episode is coming up. So if there are folks who teach or work with or have neurodivergent, youth ages 10 to 15. If your child is super excited about games, and play testing, you can actually sign up to be a play tester on our site, because those play testing times will be coming up soon. Yeah, I think those are the biggest things that are happening. Just keep a lookout on our social media for parent model stuff for new gameplay content. And for all that testing.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 12:06
Love it. And we’ll make sure to put the links to how to get at the testing. And also for the podcasts or just on we’ll make sure to put those in the show notes so people can access them. That’s super. Yeah, it’s awesome. So what three steps would you suggest for parents and educators wanting to support neurodivergent kids to the fullest? Are there three things you’d want them to keep in mind or steps they could take?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 12:34
Yeah, I think the first one is definitely like understanding what makes these kids super excited, like, understand their interests, whether it’s anime or building with Lego bricks, or, I don’t know, reading catalogs, like I don’t care what it is, if it’s something that like fascinates them, and that they will talk your ear off about, listen to that. And if you can integrate those characters, those stories, those, whatever they’re engaged in, in the things that you’d like them to learn, that you think are important skills, that’s so important. It is really about meeting kids where they are and keeping that motivation engagement up. So I’d say engaging in their interests, number one, number two, I would say like just being very observant, and, you know, noticing, noticing, I think the behaviors behind, you know, times, they may be getting frustrated or having meltdowns, I know that for me growing up, I would lash out and have these meltdowns. And I never, I never knew the thoughts behind them, I only just felt the feelings and they were very overwhelming. And so I think just like, you know, exploring the feelings, and especially the thoughts behind that behavior, and what’s going on, I think is super important. And I also think just exposing them to different representations and portrayals of neurodivergent people throughout media and talking to them about it and how they relate to it is super important that representation is big, like I didn’t meet another autistic woman until I was 20. I didn’t know about I didn’t even know about other autistic women until I was maybe 1617. And I think knowing that there was more out there that there there were, you know, the odds of them to be something totally intersectional that there are autistic people of color that they’re autistic women, that there are artistic Autistics fun, you can be anything. You don’t have to be this one box that, unfortunately, lots of stereotypes will continue to box you into showing kids the range of representation and the range of things you can be is so incredibly important. We have that representation in our games. So that is that is one place you can find it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 14:50
Yes, you do. And I also liked that you had the sample that you showed me that you had gender diversity represented to in a very natural way. It’s like heck yeah Yes, good for you.

Unknown Speaker 15:01
Yes. And we’re planning on expanding on that, which is really exciting too

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 15:05
love it. Well, let me unpack a little bit more about you with some turbo time questions.

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 15:11
Oh, yes.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 15:12
Yes. So Vanessa, what was the last book you read?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 15:16
Yeah, I read this book called Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl. Okay. I never know how to say her last name. It’s either Cheryl. Stride or straight. But tiny, beautiful things, series of tiny, beautiful essays just about love and all its different forms. It’s really cool. Yeah, so that was also an awesome read. I don’t know if I’m allowed to cuss on this, but it was the subtle art of not giving a fuck. And that one was also

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 15:47
I love it. I seen the book cover because it has like an F and then like three Asterix right? Yeah. Yeah. Very cool. Exactly. How about two inspirational folks who’d love to meet and they can be out of literature or humans past history present anything?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 16:06
Oh, man. Characters too. Oh,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 16:09
absolutely. Go

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 16:10
for it. Oh, shoot. Okay, well, I’m gonna I’m going to talk about my real ones. I will have to think about characters more because probably so many of them. But two of them I would love to meet are number one, Dolly Parton. She is I can’t even begin to describe how like cool she is and just what a wholesome and good hearted person she seems to be. And you

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 16:35
know what I just read James Patterson writes kazillion books for teens and adults. I just read the book she co wrote with him. Oh, like a week ago. And it was like it. It you could see her country music vibe coming into and stuff. So you might want to look for that. It’s a fun light read.

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 16:49
Oh my gosh, I want to read about it. For sure. Awesome.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 16:54
And who’s the second person,

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 16:55
probably Sara Blakely, who is the founder of Spanx. She just so cool. Like she just I love how she maintains such a steady and positive disposition and is just so unapologetically herself, while also just being honest, very badass in business, and, you know, be able to exit while still owning 100% of her company, and also just being so good to her employees and just being a very good person. And I think that in I think especially as an entrepreneur, it’s very male dominated. It’s very much hustle culture. And I fell into that trap for a long time of thinking I had to be that way. And I think that, you know, after a couple years of doing this, I realized I don’t have to, and I can actually I don’t have to be, you know, an aggressive masculine, you know, hustle, sleep when you’re dead kind of person. Balance is super important. And it’s, there are so many strengths to just like being kind and to being an empathetic person that yes, can set very strong boundaries and can advocate for themselves, but doesn’t have to be a shark. Yep. And yeah, I think that certainly represents that very well.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:13
Yes. Oh, love those. What’s the biggest thing you wish folks knew about neuro divergence?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 18:19
Yeah. So the biggest thing I wish people knew about neuro divergence is that it is a completely different experience for everyone. And that, I don’t know if there is sometimes people are like, Oh, well, isn’t everyone a little bit autistic or a little bit ADHD? It’s, it’s hard because I do think that it’s all about keeping an open mind and realizing that when you have met one neurodivergent person, you have met precisely one, and that you cannot try to sort of squeeze people into these boxes or into these like exact medical or diagnostic definitions. That is just not how this works.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:58
No, it’s not how anything works. And we get comfortable with compartmentalizing or stereotyping. Yeah, no, that does not work. Right? How about a pet peeve of yours?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 19:11
I have short legs and short legs. And so and I have a lot of tall friends like my co founder, Lucy. Lucy is six one. I am five, four. And so she paces much faster than me. And so I really like that’s not my pet peeve. It’s not her. My pet peeves, like slow walkers because I’m trying to get somewhere I’m trying to like, catch up constantly and just like and she’s very good at keeping pace with me. Let me just say, but I have a mission to be on. I like walking fast. And when I have a slow walker in front of me, it is so difficult for me to like keep gotta maneuver around. It’s that and it’s also when people are making products for communities that they don’t have any lived experience with. Yeah, So aka folks that are going to call it out directly, like people that are making products for neurodivergent people without the involvement of actual neurodivergent people. That’s a pet peeve.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:13
I love that. Absolutely. What is one passion and you are so passionate overall, but what is one passion you bring to your social cipher game work?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 20:22
Yes. So I have a background in neuroscience research. And I love, love, love, like, the reason that I got into it all too is like, I love connecting things that don’t seem like they connect. And I also just love finding correlations and finding patterns in data. Like my brain is just so about finding all those little patterns in the most scattered and disparate, disparate, sure, yes, like disparate data. And just creating something out of all of this stuff that was previously meaningless. And finding meaning in it said think that’s when passions also just space pirates, Space Pirates is their passions of mine. Yeah.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:08
Love it. And how can others be activists to really be supporting neurodivergent learners in our schools or in our community?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 21:19
Yeah, I think that, for one, I think, actually, this is something that you were we talked about this at one point of, okay, be able to continue to include kids by like, not, not just like separating and breaking them off from a group, just because they have different needs, but being able to actually bring professionals into like, observe or be able to just design things from the ground up to be universally inclusive from the very beginning. I think that’s super important. And I also just think that like, like creating lots of opportunities for kids to explain their needs, creating small groups, and being able to kind of like, at least create those opportunities where it’s, you know, not just one child and like a CEO of a classroom, but being able to, like, have this small group opportunities where they can reflect on and recognize their needs a little bit further, is super important, too.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 22:16
I love that it’s got to be more in schools than just opening up kids heads as my daughter explained it and dumping in the knowledge, it’s really got to be dealing with the human dealing with the needs dealing with the interpersonal. Yeah, one last trip of time, what’s something most people don’t know about you?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 22:33
So I love, love, love creating, like, very, maybe they’re dark, they might be a little bit dark, like dark ish, interactive experiences. So like, for example, in college, the school would actually fund me to create haunted houses and terrifying escape rooms. And I love making like cryptic puzzles and all of these, like interactive experiences that just like give people emotions, and make them like excited to solve the thing. Like there’s a reason that the company is called Social cipher. I love puzzles, and I especially love making them and stumping people.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:16
I love it. Yeah. Yay. I like to end the podcast with a magic wand. So if I handed you a magic wand, what would you actually wish for our neurodivergent populations?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 23:32
I would, I would love so funny because I’m like, I’m not for changing brains. But at the same time, I would love for there to just be some magic wand, where you could wave it and every kid would just have this innate knowledge that they are loved and supported. And just like no, and it would just it would be a thought they couldn’t get out of their mind. Yes. Yes. Like a tattoo, but not painful or on your body?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:10
Yes. Oh my gosh, that is a wonderful magic wand. Wish. Vanessa, you are amazing. Impressive. I’m gonna have to have you back as you keep creating all of these wonderful resources. Thank you for being our guest today.

Vanessa Castañeda Gill 24:24
Oh my gosh, you’re welcome. Thank you so much.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:36
When Vanessa reached out and wanted me to look at and provide feedback to the social cipher game, I had no idea about the amazing learning tool she was creating. It is so completely impressive. I had a lot of fun. Watching her play the game and share During my insights and my reactions, she is really on to something. And thinking back to what she shared. A takeaway for me is the reminder that we don’t see the full picture. When I look at Vanessa, I see an exuberant, entrepreneurial, young powerhouse. I don’t see someone who as a teen hid her diagnosis, and felt broken. How many of our youth are putting on a front for us to try to make it through the day? Thinking about this makes me feel sad. But I feel more hopeful when I think about how we can be more in tune with all of our youth, especially our neurodivergent ones. Vanessa, three recommendations, really hit home. The first one, listen, engage, understand kids passions, and then try to integrate it into the learning. I’m one of those moms who blended up the veggies in the spaghetti sauce. We know we can make things more palatable that spoonful of sugar, we can make learning much more relevant and interesting when we hook into students passions and let them drive the learning. Her second recommendation of observing and noticing what the thinking might be behind an emotional meltdown or shutdown is also powerful. No person wants to hit such an extreme emotion that they feel out of control. In the moment, of course, we can’t unpack what might have been behind the big emotion. In the moment is the time for making sure students have access to safe places and time so that they can calm themselves. But then helping them understand or having them help us understand what is triggered them is really important.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 27:09
From there, we can look to ways to not let situations get to a trigger point. Vanessa’s third suggestion of representation is huge. We all need to see people like us, especially kids, portrayals of neurodivergent kids is important. Just as seeing a variety of races and genders and age and abilities is important. We need to let our youth know there are many out there doing many things, and that their future possibilities are endless. I love to the fun ideas from Vanessa’s turbo time questions, and I have to confess feeling old. I’m going to need to go figure out more about what space pirates are. I know that was a part of her social cipher game. But I think there’s more to the story. Her magic wand heartbreakingly simple and powerful. I think we all agree that we want to wave the wand and have every kid own an innate knowledge that they are loved and supported. Mic drop. As always, thank you for being a part of the education evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 28:40
If you are finding yourself thinking, I need to do this in my school. Let’s talk about it. I consult and also have a book TEDx talk an online course to support starting learner driven schools and programs. My goal is to help schools and individuals find new innovative solutions to reaching every student. Let’s create an action plan together. Visit to book a call and let’s get started. Education evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen heard, valued and thriving. We need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. I’d be so grateful if you’d head over to your podcast app to give a great rating and review if you found this episode valuable. Don’t wait. Please do it right now before you forget. I really appreciate it. Thank you listeners signing off. This is Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education

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