Re-engaging Learners



Social Cipher is a video game-based platform that uses the power of storytelling to facilitate social-emotional learning and increase a sense of belonging for neurodiverse youth.

Team Lead

Vanessa Castañeda Gill

Solution Overview & Team Lead Details

Our Organization

Social Cipher

What is the name of your solution?


Provide a one-line summary of your solution.

A space-pirate adventure gaming platform that helps neurodiverse youth learn social emotional skills.

Film your elevator pitch.

What specific problem are you solving?

Neurodivergent youth face a great deal of social, emotional, and mental health challenges. Autistic youth are more at risk of developing explicit low self esteem, are 4 times more likely to develop depressive disorders in their lifetime, and 10 times as likely to die by suicide compared to neurotypical peers. Neurodivergent youth are also especially vulnerable to loneliness and isolation. Many of these problems surrounding self esteem and social difficulties for autistic youth have lasting effects. They are at higher risk for poor postsecondary and employment outcomes, especially when they possess greater functional impairments or come from lower income families. 

From Social Cipher’s interviews and focus groups with neurodivergent youth ages 10-23, two factors have been determined that confirm these issues: 1) a lack of positive, nuanced representation of autistic characters in media and 2) that the majority of autism-focused products, platforms, and stereotypes focus on rote memorization and changing behavior, rather than empowering autistic youth develop real skills to navigate the world and embrace who they are. 

These problems are also made worse by a lack of available resources and quality products for the professionals who work to support these young people in their mental health, education, and development, such as counselors, teachers, and mental health professionals. According to our team’s interviews with over 130 of these professionals, quality special education resources that can be used remotely are scarce–especially for middle-high school youth.The social emotional learning (SEL) tools and curriculum used by most teachers,counselors, and Autism Service Providers (ASPs) are patronizing, unengaging, and out of touch for this demographic. The curriculums are also often designed by neurotypical educators who do not understand the lived experiences, and needs, of autistic people. This lack of meaningful SEL content translates directly to lack of ‘buy in’ from youth, which means more than just boredom during sessions-- it actually impacts their effectiveness. Without this investment in the material, educators seriously struggle to get their students to generalize their lessons to real life scenarios outside of sessions and learn key social emotional skills. After Social Cipher surveyed 32 educators, counselors, and mental health professionals, it was found that 78% of them reported that finding engaging curriculum for social-emotional learning was difficult, and 78% reported that reinforcing self-advocacy and independence in their neurodivergent students and clients was difficult. In addition, 72% experience a lack of communication between parents, students, and teachers across settings. 

Social Cipher is combating these challenges by providing quality educational games that engage and empower neurodivergent middle and high school students. They also create software that gives educators and mental health professionals shared, accessible remote learning with their students/clients, as well as access to crucial data on their social-emotional needs.

What is your solution?

We have an innovative three part approach to solving this critical issue: our games, our curriculum, and our companion application. 

The game series, Ava, is a series of 2D platforming adventures starring an autistic young space pirate. SEL themes are woven into each game ‘episode,’ each of which focuses on a core SEL competency. The player helps Ava make dialogue choices that have a real impact on the game’s story. These games are not just typical educational games-- they are of industry standard quality and would be on par with other video games the players are familiar with. 

Each game episode is designed in tandem with a PDF curriculum, which is made to be utilized in counseling sessions along with the game. The activities and overall structure are designed to help counselors pull out the multi-layered SEL themes baked into the game and help work with their client to transfer these skills. 

Finally, the companion application is our teacher dashboard which hosts the game and player profiles, allowing the counselor to stream their player’s gameplay. As we build further, this will host a nexus of useful information for the counselor including session stats, dialogue tree choices, and more. 

Overall, for professionals, our platform is an engaging tool that helps youth practice social-emotional skills and provides crucial data on students’ social-emotional well-being. To players, it’s an exciting game series that they would actually pick up on their free time.

Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

We serve educators in schools, and autism service providers (counselor/therapist/speech language pathologist) with their own private practice or group. The professionals we’re targeting primarily provide care to neurodiverse youth (autism/ADHD/anxiety disorders/Intellectual Disability) in the 10-15 age range.These professionals have lots of clients/students, but are overworked and experiencing burnout from the amount of effort it’s taking them to find success. They know that social emotional learning (SEL) skills are vital for their clients’ wellbeing. To impart these skills, they work very hard to foster buy-in and trust with their kids, but often, clients are difficult to engage and struggle to transfer skills from sessions to the outside world. Overall, success takes massive amounts of personalized work and still has a higher failure/dropout rate than with neurotypical clients. This solution meets the needs of youth by providing a safe, accessible, and engaging space for these individuals to understand social emotional skills through characters and stories that represent them. For professionals, we’re able to meet their needs by providing a method of effectively engaging and teaching youth, as well as providing time-saving tools, like our curriculum and companion app, that allow teachers and counselors to access crucial information in order to better understand their youths’ performance and needs for support. 

How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

When I (Vanessa, CEO and Co-Founder) was diagnosed with autism and ADHD at 14, stereotypes led me to believe I was broken. I kept my diagnosis a secret for 6 years out of fear or being judged, and closed myself off to emotions because I was convinced that I’d never be able to connect with others. That led to over 6 years of anxiety, depression, and low self esteem from the ages of 14-21. In order to understand my own brain, I went to Claremont McKenna College for a degree in neuroscience, and ended up researching over 4 years and eventually publishing. In that time, I also learned how to interact with others in my own way through the stories in my favorite music, movies, and games. After years of being ashamed of who I was, I finally realized  that I never needed to be fixed; I just needed different tools to learn and thrive. I started Social Cipher to make sure that every young person finds that truth. 

Our team has expertise in neurodiversity, game design, and edtech. Our lead developer/designer, Joel, was the lead developer for Konami's Skelattack and works with our talented creative director/co-founder, Lucy, to bring our game to life. Our project manager, Louisa, has an MBA from USC and worked as a product/project manager for Pasadena-based edu-gaming company, Codespark. Our educational specialists are both autistic–one of them is a licensed psychologist. Our education manager, who is also neurodivergent, is our newest addition to the team. She has been involved in and heading Los Angeles Unified School District autism and special education programs for over 5 years.

In terms of how we involve our community, our team is nearly 50% neurodivergent, and we have a growing playtesting community of over 200 neurodiverse youth that we test and interview with in every production stage of each of our game episodes.

Overall, our team works because each member has felt different or misunderstood at one time or another. During those times, we found strength and hope in the stories and characters of geek and video game culture. We’re a bunch of passionate nerds with a whole lot of empathy for our users, and we’re determined to help them find their way to self love and self confidence.

Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

Facilitate meaningful social-emotional learning among underserved young people.

Where our solution team is headquartered or located:

Los Angeles, CA, USA

Our solution's stage of development:


How many people does your solution currently serve?


Why are you applying to Solve?

I’m applying to become a Solver because I believe community is truly the key to making an impact and retaining resilience as a founder. I’ve heard from other founder friends that Solve has an incredible network, and we want to become a part of it so that we can build partnerships with other Solvers to reach as many young people as possible with our work. After raising our pre-seed round, we’re now in a stage where it’s time to take a look at the foundations of the impact we’re going to be creating in the coming years–Solve’s focus on impact measurement evaluation and support will help us immensely with that. We’re also at a point where we know our product helps young people, and our challenge is now letting folks know that we exist and that we’re here to help. With the exposure that a renowned program like MIT Solve brings, we’d be able to reach more communities in need of our products than ever before. The last challenge we’re facing is our pricing strategy and mapping out how our business model might scale as we expand into the direct to consumer market with a version of our product for parents. Getting connected with support from the Solver network would be incredibly helpful as we navigate these new models and markets.

In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?

Product / Service Distribution (e.g. expanding client base)

Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Vanessa Castañeda Gill

More About Your Solution

What makes your solution innovative?

Our main competitors fall into two groups: other SEL applications/games, and in-person tabletop roleplaying social skills groups. 

Most other SEL applications/games are not tailored to the experiences of neurodiverse youth and sacrifice gaming experience for didactic educational content. When it comes to products for autistic youth, many of them focus on changing behavior rather than helping these individuals embrace who they are. We see our emphasis on fun, and the insight of actually autistic professionals, as our greatest strength; our venture delivers far more focused educational content and far higher gameplay quality than nearly everything else on the market. We emphasize our commitment to create a game industry standard quality of experience made to represent and empower. 

In person social skills groups that utilize tabletop roleplaying games engage kids with their interests (ex: Dungeons and Dragons) to help them learn skills. However, these groups require a lot of up front commitment time from the counselor, as they have to attend extensive training to become qualified to run effective sessions (up to 9 weeks). They are also difficult to access for many clients in need, as they are in person only and few centers across the country offer them. Our games are low cost for the counselor to implement and far more accessible to students as a remote product. 

We believe that Ava could not only play a huge role in the growing neurodiversity movement, but could also spark a change in the way social emotional learning is taught by creating a shift from didactic “chocolate covered broccoli” learning to truly transformative, immersive, story-driven learning. 

What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?

In 5 years, we’re determined to become the global leaders in transformational gaming–we believe Social Cipher can help people as they enter the workforce and beyond, venture across different educational subjects, and even provide game-based social-emotional learning for the general population. Overall, we aim to give young people an environment where they can fail safely, build confidence, and know that they’re not alone. We even envision Social Cipher as a venture that scales beyond just games— anchored by our games, we aim to develop a Netflix-style library of social emotional learning concepts and resources for youth of all neurotypes. 

Over the next year, we’ll take crucial steps toward that vision by:

  1. Building out our game library and mapping out the expansion of our IP into comics/physical products for transformational play. 

  2. Increasing distribution and accessibility through schools/centers. After speaking with our current customers, (we’ve sold to 30+ centers/schools across the US), we want to build out the features they need most–voice acting for increased accessibility and administrative features for easier school district platform navigation. We aim to reach 100 schools and therapy centers by the end of 2022.

  3. Piloting a parent version of our product. Last year, after launching a waitlist, we noticed heavy parent interest and we began research for adapting our current product for family use. After surveys and interviews with 150+ parents, we know what’s needed to begin building out and piloting a product for at home use with families. 

How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?

When it comes to impact on teachers, we’ll be successful if we can give teachers and counselors the ability to fully benefit from the power of our games and software by saving them precious preparation and reporting time, helping reduce teacher burnout by supplying easy and ready to use products, and keeping their students engaged in social-emotional learning. We’ll be developing and testing the most requested features by our current users with 50 educators to make sure that our improved companion app helps educators more efficiently gather information to evaluate student SEL performance and provide necessary supports to neurodivergent youth. For impact on youth, we’ll be doing more studies with institutions like the Open Minds School to better understand the impact of our platform on student understanding of the social emotional concepts we cover in-game before and after classroom/therapy sessions that use it. We’ll also be looking at metrics like weekly student engagement, quest completion, number of users, and engagement with our other resources (curriculum, comic series, etc.). True success in the long term would mean that we are not only able to work more easily with large school districts, therapy centers, and well-funded private schools, but also under-resourced school districts and nonprofits that reach youth who otherwise wouldn’t have access to our platform, meaning that we’ve built a sustainable and socially impactful market-based solution.

What is your theory of change?

We believe that neurodivergent built story-driven games with characters that truly represent neurodiverse youth will lead to transformative social-emotional learning for young people of this demographic. The logic model that illustrates and further details this theory can be found here:

In addition, we ran pilots last year with 16 schools and therapy centers across the US over 6 weeks. Through focus groups, interviews, and post-play surveys, we found that 94% of professionals reported that our product improved their classroom and therapy sessions. The top reasons for improvement were 1) higher engagement in social emotional learning and 2) higher motivation to learn social emotional skills. We also found that 100% of students wanted to keep playing our game series. In terms of current research, we’re in the middle of a study with the Open Minds School in Silicon Valley to assess the impact of our first episode on students’ understanding of trust.

Describe the core technology that powers your solution.

We build web-based 2-D platforming/roleplaying games using the Unity game engine, which is hosted along with a web application that houses our companion app software and our remote streaming capabilities for remote gameplay sessions between educators and students. As an episodic game series, we're able to constantly adapt the content and gameplay of our product to fit the needs and desires of our community. As a web-based solution on top of that, we're able to make changes quickly. We’ll also be expanding to create a version of our platform for at-home use with families, so we’re in the process of porting everything to mobile for accessibility on phones and tablets. For us, it's not a certain type of tech that makes us special–it's our story, characters, lessons, and the extreme care we take in listening to neurodivergent folks. No matter how softwares and other technologies change, our stories and our commitment to this community will continue to be able to adapt. 

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new application of an existing technology

Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Software and Mobile Applications

Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?

  • 4. Quality Education
  • 10. Reduced Inequalities
Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?

For-profit, including B-Corp or similar models

How many people work on your solution team?


How long have you been working on your solution?

4 years

What is your approach to incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusivity into your work?

Our neurodiverse team’s expertise spans education, game design, and autism advocacy. In addition to possessing a broad range of expertise necessary to create and scale such an interdisciplinary product. Our leadership team is 80% women led, and many of us on the team are POC and mixed race. The individuals on our team come from an array of cultural backgrounds and occupational experiences–they’re parents, students, educators, mental health professionals, and more. We prioritize DEI not only in our hiring methods (using job descriptions and hiring practices from a firm that specializes in equitable, thoughtful hiring), but also in our team culture. Because our team is now nearly 50% neurodivergent, we create flexible supports for different neurotypes and life circumstances, such as visual representations of instructions, project management support, and flexible work hours for different work styles, instances of burnout, or for caring for children. We also use neurodiversity consultants to inform our product development. Finally, because we are serving the neurodivergent community, we look to hire neurodivergent candidates, especially with different neurodiverse experiences than our own. There is not just one type of experience as a neurodivergent individual, so we find it extremely important to represent that array of experiences not just through our products, but through our team as well.

Your Business Model & Funding

What is your business model?

We sell our product based on a per counselor/teacher annual subscription model, depending on practice/classroom size. We’ll also be piloting a parent version of our platform, which will eventually become a monthly subscription model, as well as professional development courses as additional revenue streams.

Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?

Organizations (B2B)

What is your plan for becoming financially sustainable?

We raised our pre-seed round to accelerate our content production processes to create an entire library of content and replayable, personalized features for our customers, increasing engagement and allowing professionals to utilize our platform for multiple purposes throughout a child’s education or therapy journey. We’re also working on being able to increase our reach immensely through marketing to get our accessible tech product in the hands of youth and organizations that need social emotional support. We recently brought on some new sales and marketing hires to help us expand our products’ reach, and we’re now in over 30 schools and therapy centers across the country. In addition, our team has been doing research and development of features that need to be added to our product in order to be accessible in larger institutions and districts. We’re already building the right structure now to make an even bigger leap to general education in the future–our pilots have shown that general education teachers have found value in using our product with neurotypical and neurodivergent students alike. We’ve also been forming strategic partnerships for distribution and using affiliate marketing to get to our target customers. Over the next year, we’re also planning on releasing a parent model as a monthly subscription and piloting professional development programs as additional sources of revenue. With our superpower of building truly engaging, easy to use products, we envision creating a library of titles that focus on a number of competencies, scaling our products into general education, workforce development, and beyond.  

Share some examples of how your plan to achieve financial sustainability has been successful so far.

Here are some examples of the traction we've gained over the last few years:

  • We ran a 104% funded Kickstarter, with $31K in pre-sales and merchandise for the first episode of our game, 'Ava.'

  • We’ve sold our products to over 30 schools and therapy centers across the country (and counting!)

  • We’ve built out distribution partnerships with multiple therapist communities such as Geek Therapy, which each include thousands of therapists that fit our early adopter customer persona. 

  • We've raised over $850K through pitch competitions, grants, crowdfunding, and a pre-seed round, with funders like AT&T, Unity, Difference Partners, Voqal, and Camelback Ventures.

Solution Team

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