March 14, 2022

Empowering Neurodivergent Individuals with Katrina Martin

Empowering Neurodivergent Individuals with Katrina Martin

Mai Ling sits down with Katrina Martin, PhD, the founder of Bridges Learning System, to chat about her work in curriculum development. Katrina has focused on designing curriculum for disabled youth that supports and empowers neurodivergent...

Mai Ling sits down with Katrina Martin, PhD, the founder of Bridges Learning System, to chat about her work in curriculum development. Katrina has focused on designing curriculum for disabled youth that supports and empowers neurodivergent individuals. Katrina shares why it’s so important for both students and educators to have educational tools designed with this in mind.

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Contact James: James at




Mai Ling, James Berges and Katrina Martin


Katrina Martin 00:00

We know that when we actually allow a full neuro diverse community to come together and work together, it's really going to benefit everybody.


Mai Ling 00:16

You're listening to the Xceptional Leaders Podcast. Each week we give you a front-row seat to our conversations with new and successful entrepreneurs and thought leaders making an impact in the special education and disability communities. They share their intimate experiences, so you can start, grow and expand your impact. I'm Mai Ling, and you can find me at and I am so excited to have my new co-host here with me today.


James Berges 00:40

Hey! Mai Ling, I'm so excited to be back for Episode Two. I'm James Berges, SLP, and content strategist, and you can find me at and today we are going to be chatting about 'Mai Ling's interview with Katrina Martin'.


Mai Ling 00:56

Yeah, this was really interesting I'm so excited that we were able to get her on the podcast, and I know that you were able to listen to the show. So just really quickly, without giving it all away. What do you think are some high points?


James Berges 01:09

Well, to me, yeah, a lot stood out. But as someone who worked with high school students and older students on the autism spectrum, this is some of my favorite things to talk about. So what I love what Katrina is doing is she's making a curriculum to educate professionals about how they can work best with neurodiverse students, specifically autistic students, and how they can just mask their behaviors, which is such an outdated way of thinking of it, but how they can actually thrive in school and beyond in their career and you know, this reminds me Mai Ling of a conversation actually I had with someone yesterday he's someone who has I think it's over a million-dollar business, he runs it like a well-oiled machine. But he is autistic. And, you know, these labels of high versus low functioning, maybe these are going to be outdated, but in his mind from his words were that we should think of it as high support versus low support. So for example, for him, he has a photographic memory, like literally a photographic memory. He told me, he can look at the hinges on a door, and a year later dropped from memory.  So beyond that, you're like, Okay, that's, that's really cool. But is he, you know, when we think about as an SLP? Is he functioning in other areas of life? And for him, he said, what really gets in his way is he tries to think of is he giving too much eye contact right now. So when I think of what Katrina's doing, she's not just she you know, she's not just thinking about how to mask these behaviors or how to work on eye contact. It's a very holistic approach of how can we train professionals to work with others, students or learners to help them, self-advocate?


Mai Ling 02:59



James Berges 02:59

So yeah, so for this guy, he has a huge business and he knows to advocate it. Hey, maybe if I'm not giving eye contact, I'm still listening and by the way, I have 1000 step process that my business runs in, and I can hold a conversation. But I'm going to turn my camera off on zoom because it helps me listen better.


Mai Ling 03:18

Exactly! Yeah. I think our listeners really going to enjoy this episode because Katrina really brings a very personal presentation to it. Unfortunately, you can't watch her on video, but she even talks about how she has movements and things that she's doing while she's on this zoom interview, just to help settle her you know, and that's, that's what we need to do and that's what her work is all focused on, which is educating us, you know, educating service providers, educating businesses, just educating everyone that instead of going, Oh, look, you know, ''Mai Ling's jiggling in her seat'' or like you said, not having eye contact, you know, that's going to ding her on her interview. We're saying, "Oh, okay. It's just a tool, a strategy that they're using and that is something that I'm not going to use as a measure of ability". Right, and this is just huge. James, Katrina is actually going to be presenting in our Xceptional Leaders conference in April and it's a free conference, it's for five days it's called the Exceptional Collaborative Practices Conference. Which I'm so excited about because as you know, we all need to have interdisciplinary credits now, which of course is the foundation to our work right, you know, working with all of the other areas, but her the name of her courses, "Discover Transdisciplinary Success Through the Neurodiversity Paradigm".


James Berges 04:35

Amazing. So excited for that.


Mai Ling 04:38

Yeah, super interesting. So it's free. So for all of our listeners, please make sure you come on board. We are an ASHA approved provider and we are doing the reporting. So we can do that for you. We also have this as a OTA approved for a course and then you can also get certificates so you can submit those so super excited for you to learn directly from Katrina. All right, before we get to her interview, James, what have you been up to?


James Berges 05:06

Well, Mai Ling, I am trying to figure out and heard all the squirrels. I don't even think that's the expression. But I'm going to say heard all the squirrels because my brain feels squarely sometimes. But mainly, I've been working on a couple side projects. And what I'm thinking about right now is SLP transitions. We interview SLPs, who have made the leap into other careers like tech, or rehab management, or different places. And I'm getting to the point where it's getting, getting hard to go through Facebook and find the stories myself or it just takes a lot of time. I've kind of got it down to a system, and I've documented everything, and I had a writer reach out to me, who actually went to my alma mater UCSB go Gauchos and so long story short, I might get help with writing these interviews, which I'm excited for. You know, I was really hesitant to outsource anything. And I think that's a common theme with a lot of people who want to, you know, you want to own your work, you want to own your business, and you don't think anyone else can do as good a job as you at the thing you started. But that's not true. Maybe they can do 80% of the way there. And that's way better than you tearing your hair out spending a lot of time doing these things when you could be working on the bigger vision.


Mai Ling 06:25

Yeah, and this is exactly why I'm so excited that James has joined us on the show because you get to hear his journey into just uncovering all these steps and how he can do more. I'm going to take a step back, James, and say that, that is something that I learned a couple years ago and actually embraced it. Right? So everyone has been saying, You need to delegate, you need to find people you need to, you know, grow beyond just your hours and it's like, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know it, but actually letting go, and finding those people that you trust with your baby, which is your idea, your SLP transitions, you know the output of all of that. It's hard. It's really hard. But I can tell you firsthand experiences. Once I did that, I was able to really grow and anyone who is, you know, watched any of the things I've been doing, you can see that over the last like three years, I'll say that's when things really started to take off in the number of different ways for me, and that's because I started to find those people, you know, find my tribe of people who could take over those areas and do better than me, James, truthfully, like they do so much better.


James Berges 07:26

Yeah, it's like, we can't all be the specialist at managing and writing and everything. It's just like double down on your strengths, and delegate to the rest. That's the lesson I have to learn so thank you mai, and speaking of finding your tribe, I know you have something coming up this tribe of rehab/tech leaders, it's the rehab Tech Summit, and you are a keynote speaker, which is super cool.


Mai Ling 07:52

I am so excited James, I was really, really honored when the founders reached out to me because that is the space that we are in you know Rehabilitation Technology. The women that are doing it are just doing a fantastic job and I do have the final presentations, I think there's like three or four and I have the last one and I'm I get to talk about like your why. So when you get on these tech teams, everything is focused on you know, the project's on getting all the deliverables done. I mean, it's just like a checkbox everywhere, right. And sometimes we forget who we're serving. And so I get to share my experience with bringing that back to our teams and the things that I've worked on. So I'm really excited, If you're interested in finding out more the Rehab Tech Summit starts this March 3rd and 4th actually, so you'll be able to watch the reruns on that, and then the 10th and 11th are the live ones. So I'm actually not sure when this episode will drop, but I'm sure that they'll have the recordings available, and look into it for next year. They're really trying to get people like us who are service providers to connect with people who are doing cutting-edge technology ideas out there. Because you definitely need that human component on those tech teams. So thanks for bringing that up James.


James Berges 09:05

Yeah, that's super exciting. I could talk about that all day and it is, if you go to their website, there is a sister website to it. I think its called grips and gadgets. They're not paying me or anything to promote this. But I found it interesting that they do bring on SLPs, OTs, and other clinicians to partner with these tech companies to try the products out with actual learners with actual people with disabilities. Because, how are you going to learn if the product works if you don't try it with actual clients, so it's a really cool bridge between like the disability community, the tech community, and everything in between. So I'm really excited for that. Before we get into Katrina's awesome interview, I'd like to invite you to follow us on social media on Instagram, and Facebook to follow up for more updates and highlights from our podcast. And without further ado, let's get into Mai Ling's interview with Katrina.


Mai Ling 10:00

Excellent! Well, here we are in the new year, and I am really excited to be interviewing Katrina Martin, I met her on the web of course this is how this always goes, especially in this time of everyone. Still not really traveling too much but Katrina and I did talk about doing some travel this year. So we're gonna start to get out there. I'm really interested in bringing Katrina to you as our listener because she is really doing the work that we need to be thinking about. Which is how do we support our students and our adults? And individuals who are neurodiverse? Right? These are the new words that we're that we're using, and how do we support them because as I've always said. Autism is not a four-year-old. You know, I think that's what we think of a lot, especially because that's when, you know, a lot of the diagnoses are coming in at two, three, and four. But I myself have seen the progression. And I'd seen our youths, you know, going into high school and wanting to plan, you know, what are they going to do next. And so that's why I feel that Katrina and her team are really important piece of this puzzle, and bridging life to independence. So welcome, Katrina.


Katrina Martin 11:10

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. Absolutely.


Mai Ling 11:13

So I talked a little bit about the purchase learning system. But I would love if you can give us an overview of what it's about. You are the founder, you know, so what your vision is and how you got started?


Katrina Martin 11:23

Yeah, definitely. So I got started really just about a year ago. Now. It's picked up very quickly. So we're really excited about that. I started really because I felt like there was a mismatch and the services that were being offered for autistic youth and the needs of the community. So when I started bridges learning system, we really took a step back away from what is it that other people think autistic adults and neurodivergent adults really want? And what is it that the community is saying? So we started by engaging with the community. So we did surveys and focus groups with autistic adults and neurodivergent adults, and really found out what was important to them and we then built our entire curriculum around those desires and those needs. So the curriculum itself is made for kids in primary school, so kindergarten through fifth grade, and it's really an answer to this idea of social skills and social skills is really about making all kids adhere to neurotypical social expectations, and what we're doing at Bridges learning system is really focusing on the neurodiversity paradigm. So we are supporting kids and being their authentic selves, and then building bridges of communication across neurotype. So that means not changing who they are, but rather giving them the tools for self-advocacy to say what it is that they want to say.


Mai Ling 13:00

Okay, I'm jumping out of my seat here, because what you're talking about is very new. We talk a lot about thought leadership and being cutting edge of a change, you know and definitely this new woke community, right? Yeah, and I remember when you and I first started talking, I was just I do love what you're doing and so I would love if you could deep dive into what does this mean that they can be their true selves? Because I know what it means as a therapist and how that's changing our clinical practice. But what does it mean?


Katrina Martin 13:30

Yeah, absolutely. So I think a lot of it means being able to tell other people, this is the way that I function best. So there's this idea right now floating around in schools called Whole Body Listening, which means that in order for the teacher to really believe that a student is fully engaged. They have eye contact, they have still bodies, and they're not moving in their seats at all and not is supposed to signify that the child is really listening and I'll tell you right now, I'm sitting here in my chair, I'm not making eye contact. I'm playing with a fidget toy, and I'm rocking in my chair and I'm doing that because that's the way that I concentrate best. That's the way that is allowing me to be truly engaged in this conversation and being able to make my thoughts and words come out in a way that I want them to. So being able to tell people, you know, this isn't about me not listening. This is the way that I listen, and then allowing space for teachers and educators to really expand their view of what those social skills coach should look like and really making space for what they can look like, and so meeting those same needs.


Mai Ling 14:45

Yes. So revolutionary. We inch towards this in the classroom of being allowed to have fidget toys it does the spinner. You know, it was kind of the first thing and everyone was like, really?! and then we I think for years we had those bands around the bottom of the chair so you can put your feet on there and kind of play with that, we have that seat, the wiggle seat I call it where you can put it on your chair, and you can, you know, move around and that's okay. So we were inching towards this, this new way of being able to be in a classroom and learning, it's so different than sit in your chair, don't move, you know, don't get out of your seat, absolutely do not face forward, hands on your lap. You know, I'm just trying to go through all of this catholic school that I that I grew up with and now it's you know you need to be able to be who you are, and learn the way that that works best for you, and I love what you're saying the eye contact piece. So that was something that was like the core of what we were teaching and social skills, right?


Katrina Martin 15:47

Yeah, absolutely. And, and eye contact is always such a funny one for me, because as adults, we don't often always engage in eye contact in the way that we're asking kids to. I know many adults, neurotypical and neurodivergent, who think better when they're looking away, and so I think giving kids the space to have that same freedom without it being about compliance, really teaching kids that they can be who they are, and they can get their needs met and still participate fully in the classroom with their teachers.


Mai Ling 16:23



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Mai Ling 16:57

Now, let's get back to our amazing interview. Okay, so when you think about interviewing skills, those are the things that I think are still required, when you're looking for a good candidate. But I think that we are now also educating interviewers and HR, in that, you know, we're going to need to expand on these rules and, and not be so hardcore. So things like, you know, somebody who's fidgeting as an adult in their seat, right, and I see you smiling. Someone who doesn't look up when they're speaking does not mean that they're not trustworthy and I put that in quotes, right, but I feel like these are things that have always been tied to the nonverbal gestures that interviewers are looking for.


Katrina Martin 17:43

Yeah, absolutely. You know, and I think that one really important piece of that is listening to the neurodivergent and autistic communities, I think we can learn a lot by listening to those voices, and hearing, why is it uncomfortable? Why is it that this is something that really supports me, because we know that when we actually allow a full neurodiverse community to come together and work together, it's really going to benefit everybody? So expanding that criteria for what is deemed acceptable and kind of worthy of work, when we can expand that we can really harness the true power of these neurodiverse minds.


Mai Ling 18:27

Love it! Okay, so we have invited you to be a presenter on not one but two of our upcoming conferences, and the reason is we want you to be sharing this information with our teams, and so with exceptional learning, and that is our digital content site that that I am a founder of and I have other amazing professionals with me. Our goal is really to bring together the collaboration of the special education teams in their learning, and then in their clinical practice and in their service. Right, so can you tell us a little bit about how you will be sharing in those upcoming conferences we have you presenting in February, and that is with the collaborative Special Education Conference. And then we have you, let me see again in June, and that is for our speech language pathology focus.


Katrina Martin 19:19

Yeah. So in February, the theme of the conference is really working across team. So the talk that I will be giving is on working towards a common goal, and finding success in teaming using the neurodiversity paradigm. So I think one of the challenges that we have when we're working in these teams, is that everybody kind of has this sense of ownership about their piece of the child and their piece of the child's growth, and there can at times be disagreement over whose peace needs more time. And so really, what I will be advocating for is stepping back and looking at the child As a whole, and what goals are really going to lead to success for that child. And doing that using the neurodiversity paradigm allows us to really see those goals as not changing their way of communicating or interacting, or to stop stimming. But rather, how can they participate fully in a way that works for them? And how can these transdisciplinary teams really support that? So that will be in February, and then in June, I'll be talking about writing goals for speech language pathologists, and how speech language pathologists in schools can write goals that are evidence based, and also neurodiversity affirming. So supporting children and being who they are using practices that we know will actually support change.


Mai Ling 20:56

Fantastic now with speech language pathology goals, we need to show quantitative measures. And so how will you be helping us to capture that? It's always been so elusive?


Katrina Martin 21:07

Absolutely. Yeah. And I think with data, really, what we need to show with goals is that we're making progress and I think quantitative data is a huge piece of that. But I think also really taking the value of qualitative data and mixing it in. So that that becomes a piece that we're thinking about as well and really, it's true that some of these, you know, when we talk about neurodiversity, and being neurodiversity affirming, not everything is about being able to do something more to some degree, it's about supporting kids and being their authentic selves, so that they're not experiencing depression, anxiety, suicidality and so doing that sometimes can't be measured quantitatively. So we need to open our minds to different types of data.


Mai Ling 22:00

So will you be helping us with that Katrina, because I feel like this is where the thought leadership comes in is, if I can't do the minuses, then how do I capture this?


Katrina Martin 22:09

Absolutely, yeah, that's the plan.


Mai Ling 22:11

Excellent. I've seen in some other areas that we're looking at personal rating scales. What do you think about that in this area?


Katrina Martin 22:19

Yeah, you know, I think personal rating skills are an interesting concept. I think one challenge with personal rating skills, when you're talking about kids is that even as adults, I think sometimes it can be a challenge to really evaluate how you're feeling in any one moment, or how you're doing, I think, for kids, especially kids that maybe have alexithymia, which is that difficulty in really understanding or recognizing emotions in themselves. Doing that type of assessment is not going to be without its challenges. That doesn't mean it doesn't have merit, of course, but I think taking it with a grain of salt for the specific population that you're working with is important.


Mai Ling 22:58

Excellent, and I definitely thought that also, so it was kind of playing the devil's advocate on this. The other thing is, when you're dealing with students who maybe just don't love coming to speech therapy every weekend, they'd rather be out on the playground at that time, or, you know, whatever the conflict is, I would be smart enough to say, oh, yeah, I'm doing great. 


Katrina Martin 23:16

Absolutely, absolutely.


Mai Ling 23:20

Okay, well, this is fantastic. Let me ask you, since you've been doing this since October, now, I believe you just started with your curriculum. What is the feedback that you're getting? Because it is a new concept?


Katrina Martin 23:30

Absolutely. The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. So we're really excited are early adopters, and pilot users have been using our curriculum with kids, and one of the really special things about the curriculum that we've developed, is that the characters that guide kids through the lessons are all neurodivergent. So they're called the 'Insight Sprites' they're half human, half sprite, like characters very playful, very joyful, and also very neurodivergent. So each of the characters has these qualities about them, both strengths and challenges that represent what a neurodivergent person would go through and one of the most amazing pieces of feedback that we've gotten from multiple people, is that kids are identifying with these characters without being specifically asked. So where we're trying to teach kids to recognize things that they need or things that they do, we're not having to say, you know, what helps you feel more comfortable in your body. Instead, they're watching a story where dot the Insight Sprite is spinning and they say, 'Oh, I do that, too', 'That really helps me feel more grounded', 'That helps me feel better' and so having these characters that kids can really connect with is huge and something that that was just sorely needed. So I think that's been one of the most exciting things for me personally.


Mai Ling 24:57

Excellent. I think it's brilliant because I think we have found that this whole generation of children are connecting more with digital.


Katrina Martin 25:05

Absolutely. Yep.


Mai Ling 25:06

So how did you come up with this idea?


Introduction 25:09

Oh, gosh, it's been, you know, years and years in the making. Honestly, in my mind, I think really, it came from a place of wanting to just scrap everything and start from scratch. Wanting to make something that was fun and playful, and really had kids wanting to come to speech therapy. I'm excited to say that there are kids that look forward to going to these workshops look forward to hearing the music. We have amazing music by Lindsey Monroe and Rafi that is part of our curriculum. Yeah, I'm and I'm a 80s, kid, baby beluga all the way. So very excited to be able to have that as a part of the curriculum. So it's fun. We have puppet shows, we have choose your own adventure stories. And I really think the main impetus for this was really getting away from boring, dry intervention, and instead making something fun that supports kids and being themselves and really leads to a generation of empowered neurodivergent people.


Mai Ling 26:16

Absolutely. So I've had the joy and honor of working in school systems and when I went in 16 years ago now there were resources and platforms and programs all available, you know that my district had enough money to be able to invest in these types of things and make them available to us, and over the years, they have been slowly replaced. Right? With new ideation and new technology. Definitely, you know, when the iPad came out, wow, that was amazing. So I'm really excited to get your program and programs like this out there. So I want to thank you for coming on the interview with me today, Katrina, because I think it's so important to really spotlight the work that you're doing to really push these types of ideations and these new ways of providing leadership services and ways of looking at life. You know, it's so important to get you out there. So thank you so much.


Katrina Martin 27:12

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me on the show.


Mai Ling 27:14

Absolutely. Well, let me ask you, how do we stay in touch with you? And do you have anything coming up that we want to plug us into?


Katrina Martin 27:20

Yeah, so definitely the two exceptional leadership conference sessions, hope to see you all those. We have just released the curriculum in October. So we are excited to be really ramping up in the New Year getting that out to as many people as possible. You can find us on our website and you'll find on their multiple places that you can link to my calendar, find a time to talk to me if you'd like. There's also a demo on the website. So you can sign up for a seven day trial and get to view three different workshops within the curriculum and really see how it works and see how it could work for your students.


Mai Ling 28:05

Excellent, wonderful Katrina and I look forward to having you on our conferences.


Katrina Martin 28:10

Alright, thank you so much.

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James Berges 28:28

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Katrina MartinProfile Photo

Katrina Martin


Katrina Martin, PhD is the founder and lead curriculum designer at Bridges Learning System. After years of working within and on behalf of the education system for disabled youth, Katrina believes that true education reform is paramount. She contends that now is the time to remove the antiquated paradigm of educating students through a medical model of neurotypical=normal and healthy and neurodiverse=atypical and needs remediation. In its place, we must institute a social justice model of education, supporting strengths and teaching the benefits and values inherent in diverse ways of thinking.

Having worked in the field of disability for over 20 years, Katrina has seen first hand the dangers of “othering” people who think and behave in unique ways. She has also witnessed the value in supporting individual needs without a focus on labels and deficits. Katrina founded Bridges Learning System with the belief that by bringing together the autistic community and those who work on their behalf we can change the world, one student, one family, and one educator at a time.