“Is It hidden? It Is open!”: the Formation of Basic Understanding of Communication and Information Transmission in a Museum Exhibition



Оbjectives. The Cryptography Museum in Moscow has launched a program called “Is it hidden? It is open!” for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). It is based on current principles for organizing museum programs and designing visitor experiences for people with different life experiences. The program “Is it hidden? It is open!” is aimed at developing basic ideas about communication and methods of transmitting information, creating conditions and prerequisites for socialization, expanding the horizons of adolescents and young adults with ASD during leisure time in a museum exhibition

Methods. Three sets of the program “Is it hidden? It is open!” were conducted with the participation of 5 to 9 adolescents with ASD aged 14—18 years. Over the course of four interconnected meetings, the participants were introduced to the theme of the museum. Basic knowledge and skills in communication, encryption, and data security were developed through group games. The program also included a final quest. Regular interac- tions included feedback from parents and participants, as well as several focused group interviews at the end of the program. Observations of participants completing assignments and engaging in various activities were also conducted.

Results. The analysis of the results showed that the participation in the program “Is it hidden? It is open!” contributed to the development of new communication methods and skills for adolescents with ASD, as well as to the cre- ation of positive social experiences and an increase in cognitive interest. This was demonstrated, for example, during an impromptu performance at the final session by young people who had not interacted with each other before the program, and during their joint participation in the final quest game.

Conclusions. The group participation of adolescents with ASD in the program “Is it hidden? It is open!” allowed them to consolidate rules of social behavior and communication with others. Social and communication skills, as well as the knowledge the participants gained about new possibilities for using means and methods of communication, allowed them to express their own thoughts and desires, as well as better understand those of other people. This was noted by parents and museum staff. In the future, the museum plans to increase the effectiveness of the program for adolescents with ASD by organizing preparatory conversations, prolonging the program, introducing additional adapted materials, for example, social stories, sensory safety cards, visual schedules.

General Information

Keywords: museums; the Cryptography Museum; the program “Is it hidden? It is open!”; communication; accessible museum; autism spectrum disorders (ASD); young adults with ASD

Journal rubric: Sociocultural Integration & Sports

Article type: scientific article

DOI: https://doi.org/10.17759/autdd.2023210407

Received: 05.07.2023


For citation: Bolshakov N.V., Ponkratova I.A. “Is It hidden? It Is open!”: the Formation of Basic Understanding of Communication and Information Transmission in a Museum Exhibition. Autizm i narusheniya razvitiya = Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2023. Vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 61–70. DOI: 10.17759/autdd.2023210407. (In Russ., аbstr. in Engl.)

Full text


Russian museums have rich experience in implementing programmes designed for young people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) [7]. More and more cultural, educational and leisure spaces are oriented towards the needs and requirements of people with autism: adapted programmes are developed, special physical, sensory and psychological conditions are created. Projects dedicated to socialization, further vocational guidance and employment of people with ASD are being actively developed, which was largely facilitated by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ratified by the Russian Federation in 2012, as well as subsequent changes in the legal framework. At the same time, as can be seen, the most active work on adapting programmes for people with ASD today is usually carried out by art or local history (historical, biological) museums[1]. Scientific and technical museums are still lagging behind in the creation of accessible environments for people with autism, probably largely due to the complexity of the material on offer. At the same time, life in modern society often requires young people to have well-developed digital skills, competence in working with various sources of information, and the ability to work with technical devices and tools.

Since its opening at the end of 2021, the Museum of Cryptography has paid special attention to developing standards and methods of working with different categories of visitors. The main challenge for the museum's curators and staff is to bring complex, often abstract content to people who may not have been familiar with the word "cryptography" before. One of the groups of visitors who require a special approach in communicating the content of the museum are visitors with ASD, including children and teenagers. The experience of conducting adapted guided tours of the museum has shown that a more effective and comfortable introduction to the museum's themes requires the development of a series of consecutive visits to each of the halls, as well as preliminary sessions that would allow young people with autism to prepare for the perception of more complex material. To this end, the museum has launched a programme called "Is it hidden? It is open!", aimed at forming conditions and prerequisites for the socialization of teenagers and young adults with ASD in the process of leisure activities in the museum, forming basic ideas about communication and ways of transmitting information, as well as broadening their horizons.

Children with ASD at the Museum

Although autism as a diagnosis has been known for about a hundred years [15], practices aimed at the inclusion of people with ASD in culture and science began to develop only at the end of the twentieth century following the formation of the social model of understanding disability [5]. The specificity of museums as platforms, largely free from medicalist views [4], allowed them to assume the role of inclusion agents in the sociocultural sphere. At the same time, it is important to take into account that behavioral, sensory, and communicative features peculiar to people with ASD may differ significantly from what museum staff are used to in their daily work. This factor is additionally complicated by the fact that this category of visitors has the so-called "invisible disability" [16], i.e. it is not always obvious to museum staff that a person may need separate conditions for visiting expositions or events.

Studies of the experience of visitors with ASD in museums have been conducted in recent years both in the West [18; 19] and in Russia. In general, it is fundamentally important to take into account that the specifics of working with this group of visitors require, just as with any other category of visitors, in addition to taking into account specific recommendations [2; 17], providing opportunities to choose: to enroll in a special programme created for children or adults with ASD, to come to a public programme or to visit the museum individually [16].

The staff's understanding of the difficulties of familiarizing themselves with the exhibition of a science and technology museum dedicated to such an abstract discipline as cryptography was reinforced by observations of visitors with ASD in the first months after opening, when the museum worked mainly with individual visitors or with organized group visits, including those supported by individual public organizations or informal associations (e.g. the 12MM! project [15]).

The narrative in the exposition is built around the key epochs of encryption and cryptography development: antiquity (appearance of the first ciphers and encryption devices), the period of the XVI-XIX centuries (appearance of the first encryption services and complication of encryption techniques), the XX century (appearance of the first encryption machines and development of new communication channels - telegraph, radio, telephony, television), finally, the XXI century (ubiquity of the Internet and online communication). This requires visitors, for example, to understand such abstract concepts as "coding", "encryption" or "sign", "symbol system", etc., which is one of the key difficulties in conducting classes [8] or excursions. It also was a key motivation for launching the programme "Is it hidden? It is open!".


The programme "Is it hidden? It is open!", aimed at 14-18 year olds [2] with ASD, was launched in December 2022 to coincide with the reopening of the museum after a minor renovation. Between December 2022 and June 2023, three sets of groups took place, each with between 5 and 9 teens, and an additional session was held to bring together alumni from several groups. The total number of participants in the sessions was 22.

Programme goal: to form conditions and prerequisites for socialization of young people with ASD in the process of leisure activities organized in the conditions of the museum exposition and aimed at broadening the outlook, forming basic ideas of communication in children and increasing their readiness to independently explore the main exposition of the museum.

Programme objectives:
- facilitation and development of participants' interaction skills in the group, development of means and ways of participants' communication with each other;
- stimulation of interest and motivation for communication between schoolchildren and their peers by creating conditions for joint activity of participants aimed at achieving a common result, development of participants' ideas about the rules of behavior and communication with each other in museum conditions
- creation of a comfortable environment for cognitive activity when visiting the museum;
- telling about the basic concepts of cryptography - signs, symbols, methods of information transmission, alphabetical systems, encryption and decryption
- broadening the outlook of the programme participants, including by means of interactive tasks of the most interesting forms and types for the participants
- increasing cognitive interest in history and science, including through multisensory interaction [9] with objects from the collection of tactile exhibits of the museum [3] and cipher devices.
A series of four interrelated meetings was organized for each group within the framework of the programme, structured in the logic of successive introductions of schoolchildren to the museum's themes and the formation of basic knowledge and skills in the field of communication, encryption and data security. At the beginning of each meeting, the participants together with teachers discussed a detailed plan of the event with visual reinforcement, filled in personal notebooks in which each of the children could reflect emotions and impressions, mark the completed stages of the event by pasting souvenir stickers of the museum. Throughout the sessions, various means of visual support were used: a visual schedule in large (general) and small (individual) formats, rules of behavior in the museum, images of leisure options, images-smiley faces to determine emotions and moods, etc. [10]. Further, in order to facilitate the participants' habituation to regular visits to the museum [13], in accordance with the recommendations, the lessons were built in a unified logic: after acquaintance and discussion of the lesson plan, an active activity was offered in the museum hall and in the classroom, aimed at familiarization with the new topic, in interaction and communication of schoolchildren with each other; a repeated activity in the classroom, including a master class or an interactive game; summing up the day and consolidation of the acquired knowledge and skills. Working in alternating pairs and mini-groups during the sessions allowed for a variety of conditions for interaction and communication between pupils in a joint activity. The last fourth lesson of each series ends in the museum with a joint tea party of children, their relatives and teachers. The time allotted for the tea party is not limited.

The sessions were conducted without parental involvement. As one participant noted in feedback after the session, "I like the sessions without my mum" (participant in group 3). The exception was two sessions in which parents could partially participate: during the third session, participants learnt various steganography techniques (the science of hiding the very fact of information transmission) and at the end hid messages for their parents, who came to the classroom at the end and searched for the messages together with their children. At the last session, parents and adults were invited to participate in a tea party with sweets and snacks.

The museum staff conducting the programme paid special attention to working with parents. It is important to emphasize that while the children were leaving for the session, the museum curator conducted guided tours of the museum with the parents. At the end of each meeting, teachers talked with parents, describing its stages in detail and emphasizing important details. Parents were interested in the process, the child's involvement in it, and often asked for individual feedback or advice on how to organize work with the child at home. The discussion was supported by demonstrating the lesson materials and explaining the homework for the week. Parents argued the importance of these conversations, for example: "He behaves very differently with us. What you are telling me now I find amazing and very interesting" (father of group 3 participant). During the last session, parents participated in a focus group. It should be noted that during the programme many parents began to communicate, exchanged contacts and now, after the course, continue to keep in touch, sharing important information and experiences, discussing their children's education and many other issues of interest to them.

Due to the limited ability to obtain and interpret quantitative performance assessments resulting from the statistically insignificant number of participants, the authors conducted a series of participant observations during the sessions, as well as regular collection of feedback from parents and in several focused group interviews at the end of each series of sessions.

The final meeting of each course was summative in nature and aimed to consolidate the knowledge and skills gained by participants through a quest game. The task of the participants was to compile a statement from the words obtained by guessing ciphers with the help of various exhibits in the halls. Guided by a map, the participants deciphered the words, found the keys to the lock, and searched for the invisible message through simple experiments. Such activities, oriented towards a common goal, helped to create conditions for the participants to develop communication with each other.
The key tasks of the curator and teachers at each stage of preparing and conducting the sessions include the following:
  1. Before starting the series of classes:
- identification of groups - participants of the project; discussion with parents about organizational information,
- adapting the social history [6; 20] for the course (including information about the audience, teachers, activities),
- distribution of preparation materials to parents, including a sensory map with marked risks or calmer zones, narrative tools to prepare for the museum visit, and other aids if available [11; 14],
- making adjustments to the planning of activities, taking into account the individual developmental characteristics and capabilities of group participants,
- purchasing and preparing the necessary materials for the events.
  1. Before each session:
- Preparation of the museum space and necessary equipment. It is important to take into account that the optimal time for classes is the period when there are not many other visitors in the museum [1],
- reducing the influence of sensory stimuli [7], e.g. switching off sound installations (before the first session of each series, until the participants have adapted to the museum space)
During the sessions:
- acquaintance of teachers with participants and participants with each other, gradual building of communication;
- conducting an initial study of pupils' perceptions of basic concepts of cryptography (conversations and group interviews within the framework of the familiarization session);
- dynamic observation of the interaction and communication of participants in the group, their joint activity and involvement in the process;
- partial acquaintance with the exposition within the framework of a series of leisure activities; holding talks, games, master classes for schoolchildren in the museum environment;
- consolidation of knowledge and skills acquired during leisure activities;
- re-examination of schoolchildren's understanding of the basic concepts of cryptography (conversation or survey);
- regular discussions with parents;
- conducting a tour of the museum for parents, which allows, firstly, to occupy parents, and, secondly, contributes to the formation of a sense of unity [18]. As noted by the mother of one of the participants: "In such events, I am always very happy that we get to know the parents, because thematic support for parents is also very important" (mother, focus group 2)
  1. At the end of the session series:
- summarizing the results of the course, reflection;
- presenting handouts and souvenirs to the participants,
- providing feedback to parents upon their request. As parents noted, it is important for them that teachers give them feedback about their children, "because each teacher has something to say about each participant. That always really elevates the usefulness. Something interesting that your son did during the class" (mother, focus group 1),
- qualitative analysis of the data obtained from the study of preschoolers' perceptions of basic concepts of cryptography before the series of leisure activities and at the end of the project; analysis of the results of dynamic observation of pupils' interaction and communication in the group during the project;
- comparing the data obtained with the objectives set;
- collecting feedback from parents and chaperones on participants' emotional response, goals achieved, behavioral changes and overall project outcomes;
- sending photos to the participants;
- analyzing the completed stages of the project.

Project Results and Discussion

Feedback during and after the sessions was collected through communication with parents, regular observations of participants, and focused group interviews with parents during the fourth session. The impact of the sessions was assessed through tasks that participants completed at home after a number of sessions, as well as by recording changes in participants' behavior. As part of the observation at each session, situations of spontaneous interaction between the participants, facts of communication with each other, and manifestations of negative reactions were recorded. It is important to note that specific behavioral reactions (shouting, running, pinching, etc.) were observed in participants in all sessions with approximately the same frequency, while the number of situations of interaction between participants increased from 0-2 in the first session to 20-30 in the fourth session, depending on the group. It is indicative that at the final session of the first intake, the participants, who, according to their parents, find it very difficult to get in touch with new people, joined together independently and performed an improvised play about the alphabet to their parents, thus not only consolidating the knowledge about different symbolic systems acquired during the course, but also demonstrating their readiness to communicate. Throughout the course, all participants showed varying degrees of interest in communicating with each other about leisure activities and shared hobbies. For example, a passion for learning about the Underground Railroad brought several participants in the group together in a lengthy conversation. Discussion of cars interested more than half of the group and led to active discussion between classes.

Twelve parents participated in follow-up group interviews after the sessions. All parents were positive about their child's experience of the programme, but three of the 12 parents noted that they had not yet noticed specific changes in their child's behavior or skills. As one participant's father explained, "the effects may be delayed and may show up unexpectedly after some time, maybe even after a few years" (father, focus group 2). The focus group also discussed issues such as:

- Did the participant independently complete the tasks that were offered for homework?
- Did the participant remain interested in the topic throughout the week between sessions, did he/she tell his/her parents or others about the sessions?
- Did the participant feel comfortable in the museum exhibition and in the lessons?
- Was there anything that the participant particularly liked or disliked about the classes?
- How would parents evaluate the results of attending the course?
As parents note, even those who have not yet noticed changes in their child's behavior or skills, within the framework of this project the participants gained valuable experience of interaction with each other, as well as experience of joint activities aimed at achieving a common result: "These social skills that are being developed are very important. In a new team, with new people. This is what is usually very lacking" (mother, focus group 1). Thus, the following tasks were suggested to stimulate the participants' interaction with each other during the sessions:
– a communicative "circle" wherein participants gave their names, asked each other questions about interests and leisure activities, and discussed news and plans;
– joint creation of phrases and sentences from magnetic pictograms as part of the introduction to the "Protocryptography" hall: guided by the sequence of images and words on the sample cards, the team searched among the many signs presented in the hall, similar to those depicted on the sample cards given to them, and composed phrases for guessing by the participants of the second team;
– familiarization with several types of alphabets and sorting jumbled individual characters into commands;
– jointly coming up with phrases and creating ciphers using Caesar's disc and sharing the material between teams, followed by deciphering the message and discussion;
– familiarization with different ways of hiding information in objects: participants worked together to find messages on paper in a jug, in a bone, in the sole of a shoe, in a blanket and on surfaces: by lighting a UV torch they found an invisible message on an eggshell, by brushing wax off a surface they found a message on a blackboard. Having learnt about different ways of hiding information, the participants divided into two teams and hid several messages addressed to the other group using the acquired knowledge and skills;
– participation in a team summarizing quest game, in which all stages were completed together;
– organizing a joint tea party followed by inviting parents to the table and discussing the course outcomes.
It should be emphasized that the participants of the "Is it hidden? It is open!" programme participants learnt about new possibilities of using means and ways of communication, which allowed them to express their own thoughts and desires more fully, as well as to better understand the thoughts and desires of others. Staying and interaction of teenagers with ASD in the group allowed them to consolidate the generally accepted rules of behavior and communication with people around them, which are important not only in the conditions of the museum, but also in all spheres of life to facilitate the socialization process.
Participation in the "Is it hidden? It is open!" programme, according to parents, allowed their children to develop their cognitive interest and broaden their horizons, including through the experience of visiting a science museum, which was unique for some participants. Thus, one of the participants of the third set asked his parents to make copies of the encryption form he was given at home and brought several dozens of encrypted messages to the next session, while other parents noted that their children applied their knowledge directly in the halls of the museum after the session.
A few parental comments received during the programme are posted below and afterwards. The author's spelling has been preserved:
"We then went to the ancient hall together with him after the last class and found the scytale (ciphering instrument). He found the scytale himself, deciphered everything, and showed me everything. He was so interested, he remembered that he dragged me along himself, which is actually a nonsense" (mother, focus group 2).
"What is fixed with hands - it is for the development of the child's brain, it is very important. That there is not only Russian and English alphabet and some numbers, but how it all can be transformed and how it transforms. It is also very useful for Informatics" (mother, focus group 2).
At the same time, parents positively evaluated the multisensory nature of the lessons and the appeal to different modalities of information perception when talking about abstract concepts and disciplines, as "if it is fixed on the hands, it is much better", whereas "any lecture, it all flies out" (mother, focus group 1). Another crucially important point for the success of the sessions, according to parents, was the clear adherence to the structure of the sessions. As a participant's mother noted, "for our children it is very important to have this routine" (mother, focus group 1). At the same time, structure means not only a clear schedule of classes, but also their regularity and weekly nature: "If he realizes that he has a museum on Saturday, he waits for it. He has already packed everything in his rucksack, put his folder, and was already ready and waiting for me" (mother, focus group 2).
The organization of the "Is it hidden? It is open!" programme and the inclusion of the participants' interest in it contributed to the formation of their basic ideas about the ways of information transfer, which in the future will allow them to better understand the principles of working with computers and smartphones, the rules of using the Internet and in the future to move on to more complex concepts from such disciplines as computer science, mathematics, cryptography, including visiting other halls of the museum in accordance with the parents' request to continue the lessons, "to make things more complicated there, so that the children feel that they can do it" (mother, focus group 2).
At the same time, only three out of 22 participants showed a strong interest in the topic of encryption, alphabets and symbolic systems from the beginning, so not all participants were equally engaged during the course and not all found the topic of communication close and interesting. This led the organizers to conclude that not all participants and parents could be expected to respond equally and immediately to the outcomes of the course:
"He has no particular interest in it, he learned how to use Caesar's disc, showed me how to use it, and forgot about it. But he says "let's go to the museum", that is, he's probably interested, but he doesn't share anything about it. It's a common story with us. Then after some time it suddenly resurfaces" (father, focus group 2).
It is also important that the assessment of the effectiveness of extracurricular activities should be understood not only as the results of the child's own learning, but also as the quality of the design of the educational environment and the efforts of teachers [12]. It is necessary to consider museum activities comprehensively even in the case when a particular child does not have a specific result at the moment. Parents generally insist that "the effect will be noticeable very later. He can keep everything in his head, put it off, and then it will manifest itself. It is still development for him" (mother, focus group 1).


Thus, the goal of the programme "Is it hidden? It is open!", launched in the Museum of Cryptography at the end of 2022, is to form conditions and prerequisites for socialization of young people with ASD in the conditions of the museum exposition, to expand their outlook, to form basic ideas about communication and to increase their readiness to explore the main exposition of the museum independently. The need to create the programme arose because the museum exposition, due to its specific subject matter, turned out to be too complex and overloaded both in terms of its content and the characteristics of the sensory and physical space, which required the development of a series of consecutive visits to each of the halls, as well as preliminary classes that prepared young people with autism for the perception of more complex material.

Based on the results of the programme and the research conducted within it, which included a series of participant observations during the sessions, collecting feedback from parents in the form of regular interaction and several focused group interviews at the end of the sessions, it can be concluded that the "Is it hidden? It is open!" programme contributes to the participants' positive experience of interacting with each other, as well as experiencing joint activities aimed at achieving a common result, leading to the development of cognitive interest and broadening horizons. This is made possible, among other things, by the multi-sensory nature of the lessons and the use of different modalities of perceiving information when discussing abstract concepts and disciplines, by introducing additional adapted materials (social history, sensory safety map, visual timetable, etc.) into the lessons, as well as by the continuous consolidation of knowledge and skills in the form of group games, including the final quest. Parents particularly appreciate the value of the extended nature of the programme (including additional sessions with participants beyond the four sessions of the course). They also appreciate the separate programme of activities for carers, which has been developed to keep adults occupied during the sessions and to encourage community building among parents.

As part of the further development of the programme, it seems necessary to further acquaint participants with the museum's exposition. For example, a session has already been held in the "Pre-Machine Cryptography" hall dedicated to written communication, and further masterclasses will be held in the 20th century hall with the prospect of introducing participants to the exposition of the most complex hall dedicated to digital literacy, computer security and the importance of cryptography in the modern world.

[1] For example, see the results of the All-Russian Competition "Inclusive Museum" for 2017-2022.

[2] Young people of other ages also participated in separate sets: the first set included a 12-year-old and the third a 26-year-old.


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Information About the Authors

Nikita V. Bolshakov, e-mail: nbolshakov@hse.ru

Iuliia A. Ponkratova, Teacher, Cryptography Museum, Moscow, Russia, ORCID: https://orcid.org/0009-0001-3923-6550, e-mail: Yuliaponkratova3103@gmail.com



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