Sensory Screenings

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Ah the cinema- giant screens, surround sound, confectionery counters, reclining chairs; a perfect treat in many respects (until you need to dash for the loo, or eat too much sugar! ๐Ÿ˜› ).

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But for many people with autism, a trip to the cinema can present a number of sensory challenges- the brightness of the screen and overly loud audio can be quite distracting for example.

In recent years, a number of cinemas have begun to host special sensory screenings for children with autism.

In case you hadn’t noticed from all of the autism on screen posts I write, I’m a bit of a film buff, so naturally when I saw that my local cinema was hosting a sensory screening of ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul‘ I had to give it a try! ๐Ÿ™‚

For anyone thinking of seeing the film, it’s not as good as the previous ones- the cast change didn’t really work! ๐Ÿ˜›

So what’s different about a sensory screening?

A sensory screening differs from the average cinema experience in the following ways:

  • A special sheet of acetate (it reminded me of a giant plastic pocket) appeared to cover the usual backdrop to reduce the screen brightness
  • There are no trailers (woohoo ๐Ÿ˜€ !)
  • Sound levels are reduced
  • The lights remain on throughout at a dimmed level

This last part was quite nice actually as I did not emerge from the cinema with the usual vampire-esque response to daylight! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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So what did I make of the experience?

Well, to be honest it was a little weird for me at first as someone who frequents the cinema quite regularly. I wasn’t expecting the lights to stay on, but you adapt pretty quickly. It was quite a pleasant transition to go from dark to light scenes without feeling blinded! ๐Ÿ™‚

This did however, make it a little bit harder to see any of the night-time scenes which I found a tad distracting.

But all in all I found the experience quite nice and would highly recommend it for anyone who struggles with sensory issues ๐Ÿ™‚

However, I would have a slight critique to make in the choice of sensory films that are shown. Any films that I have seen advertised as sensory friendly here in Ireland fall into the family friendly/childrens category. While it is brilliant that many children with autism are afforded the opportunity to attend these screenings, we often forget that children with autism grow into adults with autism, adults who may want to watch the latest Marvel or James Bond movie, or a racy rom com in sensory comfort.

As they say- a lot done, more to do.

Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Aoife

 

 

Autism 101- Meltdowns

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Leading on from Friday’s post, I’d like to place the autistic meltdown under the microscope today.

So what exactly is a meltdown?

To an outsider, meltdowns appear like temper tantrums. You see a petulant, naughty child that didn’t get their way. Screaming, throwing things, violent behaviour- it seems like a tantrum, but the reality is very different.

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Meltdowns are described as a temporary loss of behavioural control in response to an overwhelming situation or stimulus. This can manifest physically (lashing out, kicking, biting etc.), verbally (shouting, crying, screaming) or both.

So what’s happening in the brain that causes these outbursts?

The human body increases secretion of what are known as stress hormones (e.g. adrenaline, cortisol) in response to a stressful situation. Studies have shown that autists have higher levels of these stress hormones than their neurotypical peers.

When a stressful situation passes, stress hormones should return to normal levels. In the case of autism however, these hormones persist in the body for some time afterwards. The autist is left with residual levels of biological stress which make us more susceptible to stress related outbursts.

Release of stress hormones is controlled by the hypothalamicโ€“pituitaryโ€“adrenal axis or HPA axis, a complex interconnecting network that comprises the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland andย the adrenal gland (i.e. HPA). This system controls how the body reacts to stress. Research suggests that this system is hyper-reactive to stress in the case of autism.

In particularly stressful or harmful situations, our bodies enter a heightened state of physiological stress which triggers the “fight or flight” response. High levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline increase the release of glucose (to give a burst of energy) and increase blood pressure (to divert blood to the muscles) in order to prepare you to either fight the danger or run away from it.

This response is triggered in the case of a meltdown.

Excessive stress hormone release pushes the brain over the edge. The brain thinks it’s under attack and instructs the body to protect itself at all costs. The autist is in instinctual fight or flight mode at the mercy of their stress hormones.

Meltdowns manifest differently from person to person. When I would meltdown, it appeared as though I were throwing temper tantrums as I stood and fought my corner; other times I would run away from my trigger somewhere quiet. Sometimes I fought and then ran away.

 

My parents tried everything to get me to control my “tantrums”. Taking away toys, sending me to my room, bribery, guilt, you name it!

Bribery was perhaps one of the more successful tactics they used. My meltdowns were at their worst around the age of 6, so my mother implemented a sticker reward system. If I behaved myself, I got a sticker for the day on the calendar. At the end of the month if I had a full set of stickers I would get a present.

It didn’t really work though…I only managed maybe two months without incident, and I doubt that they were consecutive. I still think fondly of that hard earned Monkees greatest hits tape (such a Hipster child! ๐Ÿ˜› ) and Hula Hair Barbie! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Anyone else remember her?

One year, I was even asked to give up losing my temper for lent!!! ๐Ÿ˜› I lasted about 4 weeks, had a meltdown and subsequently felt like the worst person in the world for letting Jesus down!

It seemed biology had a different plan- how naive we were! ๐Ÿ˜›

So what does a meltdown look like for me?

I like to classify the severity of a meltdown on a scale from 1 to 3:

Stage 1: These are very mild and normally pass within a few minutes. Usually these entail getting a little bit overwhelmed and starting to cry unexpectedly- often mid sentence! Think of these moments as opening the steam valve to cool the system ๐Ÿ™‚ Maths classes for example triggered many of these mini meltdowns- I wouldn’t understand a concept or problem, get frustrated, aaaannnnd suddenly find myself choking back tears while my exasperated maths teacher attempted to break things down for me (or if this happened mid-homework I’ve been known to throw my book at the wall ๐Ÿ˜› ).

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Stage 2: This type of meltdown is a little more intense spreading out over several minutes, hours, and if particularly overwhelmed, on and off again over days. A situation, rumination or accumulation of stress tends to set these guys off. If wound particularly tightly, something very simple may tip the scales in this case- “You don’t want to play with me? FINE!” **Core meltdown activated**! Tears flow, your chest gets tighter and breathing can be difficult. This tends for me to be a “feeling” or cathartic stage. You’re in overload and need to feel, think and process the triggers until the storm passes.

TIP: I find thatย reasoning and music (songs that relate to the emotion or trigger) often work well to calm you and speed up the process. Hugs are also greatly appreciated as deep pressure calms and eases stress ๐Ÿ™‚

In this stage I find that shutdowns can also happen, wherein I struggle to speak, think and even act (an experience I’ll delve into further on Friday ๐Ÿ™‚ )

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Stage 3: Enter the dragon! These are full scale, out of control meltdowns. Fight or flight is triggered and you are working on autopilot. The brain has been pushed too far and launches all out war.ย These tend to be brief, (gradually abating to a stage 2 meltdown when the adrenaline wears off), but are highly destructive. You can literally say or do anything in this heightened adrenal state. Your mind believes it’s at war and will act accordingly to protect itself. Reason is useless; scolds are futile. The real Aoife is locked outside her brain, banging on the door desperately trying to re-enter the cockpit. I’m aware that I’m out of control and want it all to stop, but am powerless to do so. Nothing can be done but wait until the door is unlocked once more.

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TIP: Anger and attempts at restraint are useless in this situation, it only fuels the fire. Remaining as calm as possible until the mist passes is key.

I know these can sound a little scary, but they do decrease in frequency with time and stress management. It takes a significant stressor to trigger a stage 3 for me anymore ๐Ÿ™‚ Happy stage 1 meltdown’s, like hearing the Phantom of the Opera overture, can even be quite amusing! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Meltdowns are tricky, but easily managed when you understand them for what they are. In the years leading to my diagnosis, without knowing it, I developed methods to help ease these passing hurricanes. Deep breathing, writing out my emotions, hugging a pillow or giant teddy, talking, and praying, but most importantly music. Music is key for me personally. The melodies, the riffs, but especially the lyrics; they soothe my soul. They verbalize the emotions I’m struggling to identify and process,ย guiding me safely past the storm ๐Ÿ™‚

A meltdown is not a tantrum; it is not attention seeking behaviour; believe me- no one wants it to stop more than I do.

It is a biological response to excessive stress. We have no control over it. Punishments and judgments will only make things worse. Growing up would have been so much easier had my friends, family and (most importantly) I understood this.

Love, support and understanding are critical to meltdown management.

So try not to judge that kid crying hysterically in the corner at a party- there may be far more to it than you realize ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Sesame Street: Meet Julia

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Earlier this week, popular children’s TV showย Sesame Street officiallyย debuted a new puppet with a twist- a puppet with autism! ๐Ÿ˜€ The character of Julia was introduced as part of Sesame Street’s autism initiative, first appearing on Monday to rave reviews from fans, experts and parents everywhere.

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Whilst only making the news in recent months, Julia has in actual fact been around since 2015, having first appeared in an online storybook about autism as part of ‘Sesame Street’s’ autism initiative- ‘Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children’.

The creators of Sesame Street established this initiative in 2015 in order to promote better understanding of the condition after a study revealed that children with autism are more than five times more likely to be bullied than their peers!! This initiative was developed in partnership with autism workers, advocates, parents and autists themselves in order to ensure that the topic is handled in the best possible way.

You can find out more about the initiativeย here:

http://autism.sesamestreet.org/

It’s a nifty little website providing videos for kids, videos for parents, daily routine cards and loads of other useful materials for children and adults alike ๐Ÿ™‚

So what is Julia actually like?

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Julia first appears onscreen quietly painting with her friends Elmo, the fairy Abby Cadabby and Alan. When Big Bird comes on the scene, Julia largely ignores him, completely engrossed in her painting. The other puppets are engaging in finger painting, but Julia makes noises of disgust and uses a paintbrush instead, with Abby remarking that Julia hates the feeling of paint on her fingers.

With their paintings finished, Abby gives Julia’s painting huge praise (it was easily better than Abby and Elmo’s efforts), remarking that she is very creative- casually demonstrating the talents that autists possess without veering into savant stereotypes. Big Bird tries to hive five Julia for her efforts, but still she ignores him, making no eye contact. When Julia hops off to play tag with the other puppets, Big Bird questions whether Julia likes him or not. This leads Alan to explain autism to Big Bird so that he understands that Julia does things a little differently, “in a Julia sort of way“- but she’s also lots of fun! ๐Ÿ™‚

Later in the episode, Julia hears nearby sirens and covers her ears in response to the noise, needing to go somewhere quiet for a bit, subtly demonstrating how an autist can struggle with sensory sensitivity. Julia also carries around Fluster, a rabbit toy which she strokes to help her calm down, showing the audience ‘stimming’ in action.

The primary focus of this segment is to demonstrate that although Julia has autism, she can play and be your friend just like everyone else. After Big Bird remarks that Julia is not like any friend he’s ever had before, Elmo and Abby point out that none of them are exactly the same, bird, monster, fairy- they are all different, but are friends regardless. Julia talks a little differently, repeats sentences, flaps her arms when she gets excited- but she’s just another playmate, however different, at the end of the day ๐Ÿ™‚

You can watch Julia’s debut in full in the video below ย ๐Ÿ™‚ :

My school life would have been so much easier had other children been better able to understand and accept me as the other puppets accept Julia, but with initiatives like this at work I have great hope for the next generation ๐Ÿ™‚

This episode was handled both sensitively and intelligently to provide children everywhere with an insight into autism. All behaviours are explained, little is left for the audience to guess at. Julia is different to the other puppets yes, but the episode normalizes her differences so that when children encounter real people like Julia, they will be treated with acceptance and understanding ๐Ÿ™‚

Here’s a behind the scenes look at how the character was brought to life:

Fun Fact: Julia’s puppeteer (who can be seen in this video thumbnail) is a mother to an autistic son in reality!

This was a pleasure to watch and I look forward to seeing all of Julia’s future adventures in the show! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Aoife

Autism and Textures

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to talk about something that you may not be aware of in relation to autism- the issue of texture sensitivity.

During my assessment, I was asked by the psychologist if I had any issues with textures. Caught off guard (as I was unwittingly hoodwinked into attending the assessmentย ๐Ÿ˜› ), I quickly answered no, only to realize hours later that in actual fact, textures influence my life hugely!

In all previous conversations about autism, I had never heard anything about textures, but these are in actual fact a common source of sensitivity for autists.

Rough seat belts, itchy labels and materials, even bras can be extremely irritating to the hypersensitive autist.

There was absolute war between my mother and I when I would refuse to wear a bra as a child! The sensation of the garment against my skin weirded me out and I found it extremely uncomfortable. I would even try wearing it over my thermal vest to place a barrier between me and it, buuuut it didn’t very work well…I was constantly fidgeting! ๐Ÿ˜›

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Weird textures completely freak me out- cornflour (a particular pet peeve), some fruits and veg, yogurts (or most foods) with lumps in them and nail files to name but a few.

Encounters with such textures can lead toย reactions like these…:

(Fun fact about me- I genuinely shake my head like a dog when I shudder! ๐Ÿ˜› )

It’s not all negative though-ย you can learn to adapt and condition yourself to stimuli ๐Ÿ™‚ I never drank a glass of water until I was 11 years old as it felt really weird to me compared with other more flavorful drinks. I gradually conditioned myself to it by taking one gulp water followed by one gulp juice (my family found this hilarious ๐Ÿ˜› ) until the glass was empty- I now drink pints of water daily without issue! ๐Ÿ™‚

Pleasant textures on the other hand pose an entirely different sensory experience, lighting up my brain like a Christmas tree! ๐Ÿ™‚

The creamy texture of ice cream or chocolate melting in my mouth, the strangely irresistible and soothing feel of metal against my skin or the drug-like euphoria that comes from stroking a fluffy puppy-sheer bliss! ๐Ÿ™‚

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As my sister remarked as I was writing this piece, it’s easier to list the textures that I do like than those I don’t! ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ˜‰

So what’s the scientific reason for this sensitivity?

As we have discussed in previous posts (Autism 101-Sensory Processing;Discussion-Trust, Intimacy and Sexuality), people with autism are hypersensitive to the sensation of touch. Dysfunctions in brain areas involved in sensory integration, in addition to hyper-connected and hyper-excitable neurons within the autistic brain, can greatly influence our responses to texture.

MRI studies of autistic brains also suggest that there is an exaggerated response to unpleasant stimuli in particular within the limbic system- a set of structures involved in such processes as emotions, behaviours and motivation.

It may seem like we’re consciously overreacting to certain textures, but our response is entirely neurological- so try to keep that in mind next time you see us pull a weird face after encountering an unpleasant texture! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Have a good week everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- My Name Is Khan

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

In the next part of my autism on screen series, I’m going to explore the portrayal of autism in the Indian drama film ‘My Name Is Khan‘ (2010).

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A dual Hindi and English language film, ‘My Name Is Khan‘ follows Rizwan Khan, a Muslim man with Asperger’s syndrome, who set’s out on a journey across America to tell the president that he is not a terrorist following a sectarian attack on his family in the wake of the events of 9/11.

Check out the trailer below! ๐Ÿ™‚

So how does this film measure up in it’s portrayal of the realities of AS?

The film opens with a disclaimer stating that the film makers have endeavored to depict AS as authentically and sensitively as possible, however, as this is a work of fiction, they acknowledge that certain creative liberties were taken in the portrayal of autism- so as with ‘Rain Man‘, take the film with a grain of salt!

That being said, I found this film to be generally quite accurate from a symptomatic perspective. Granted, Khan appears slightly weirder than the average person with AS and many of his symptoms are exaggerated, but overall I felt that this was a solid onscreen portrayal of autism.

In particular I felt that this film gave a good representation of repetitive behaviors and sensory sensitivity.

Throughout the film, Khan can be seen fiddling with some stones in a repetitive manner.

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I may not carry stones around with me, but I am constantly fiddling with my jewelry in a similar manner. It’s a compulsive action- I have this constant need to reach out and feel my chain between my fingers. There’s something incredibly soothing about the motion, especially when you’re particularly stressed. Actions such as these are referred to as stimming or self stimulation. I’ll dedicate a post to stimming at another stage ๐Ÿ™‚

As regards sensory sensitivity, I thought that the film presented more of a normalized and subtle reaction to sensory stimuli than most films featuring autism, particularly in relation to Khan’s sensitivity to the colour yellow (there’s a particularly funny moment where he changes direction on the street to avoid looking at someone wearing a yellow top!).

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When I first watched this film, I thought that this had to be an exaggeration, but in actual fact, as I mentioned in the last post, boys with autism really struggle to process the colour yellow! Scientists think that this may result from a sensitivity to luminance in autists. Alternatively this may occur as yellow is one of the most heavily sensory loaded colours, as it engages multiple colour detection cells (called cones) in the eye.

Comparing this film to ‘Rain Man‘, there is quite a difference in how autism is portrayed. There was a far greater focus on everything that is good about Khan rather than areas of disability in his life, which can often be exploited in film for dramatic effect. Unlike ‘Rain Man‘, modern films about autism, such as this, haveย the added benefit of over twenty years of research and observation of the autistic condition, leading to more accurate depictions/attitudes to difference on screen.

Unfortunately however, Khan is depicted as quite intelligent (even called a genius), with superb memory and a savant-like ability to fix any mechanical item known to man, further promoting the stereotype of the autistic savant. These traits however, are somewhat muted in comparison to ‘Rain Man‘, giving a slightly more realistic portrayal of autism.

So there we are- hope you all enjoyed this piece ๐Ÿ™‚ I would highly encourage you all to watch this film at some stage. Autism aside, this is an amazing film- one of the best I’ve seen in a long time! In the latter half of the film, you start to forget that Khan is in any way different, finding yourself swept up in this powerful story of love, loss and acceptance.ย Having watched only the trailer to re-jog my memory, I really want to see this film again myself! ๐Ÿ˜€

Weekend plans sorted! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Aoife

Autism 101-Sensory Processing

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So today I’m going to briefly introduce you to the issue of sensory processing for people on the spectrum. This is a very broad topic, but I’ll expand on the issues in more detail at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Many individuals on the autistic spectrum struggle to process every day sensory information. Sounds, textures, smells, lights, even colours (boys in particular struggle to process the colour yellow) can overload the nervous system and greatly upset us, effect our behavior or even trigger a meltdown.

But why?

In autism, our senses can be either hyper or hypo sensitive (sometimes even both) to stimuli at different times. Our senses are heightened- smells are stronger, sounds are louder. As a result of this, stimuli reverberate all the more intensely in our brains.

Think of the brain as a computer server at exam time where everyone is logging in at once. Too much information has been entered into the system, but the server can only cope with so much. The entire system becomes overwhelmed and the server crashes.

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Here’s just a quick video simulation of sensory overload.

Warning for those on the spectrumthis video contains flashing lights, bright colours and loud, sudden noises

For me personally, I have many (mild) issues with sensory processing. Smells, tastes and textures are a daily struggle. For example, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat a salad as the smell alone makes me want to throw up- I’m dreading what pregnancy may one day bring! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Loud or irritating ย noises, (especially repetitive ones), too can be a challenge. Don’t get me started on the shock I get when a passing bus makes that giant hiss/woosh sound or a car honks the horn unexpectedly!! ๐Ÿ˜›

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Most days, you’re lucky and the offending stimulus passes quickly, but other times it can get the better of you. I recently had a near meltdown on holiday from a cocktail of excessive heat, hunger, exhaustion and social frustration.

Top Tip– Keep on top of your hunger/thirst. I’ve discovered this past year that an excess of either will make me act really loopy! ๐Ÿ˜›

When you’re hit by sensory overload, it feels as though your head is caught in a vice grip. Your mind is screaming, unable to focus on anything else but the source of discomfort.

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The worst part of it I find is coming across as a complete basket case when overloaded. You don’t get the most sympathetic of looks when you complain about a persistent noise- few can understand how it’s making your brain hurt.

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So what does science have to say about sensory processing?

Sensory integration involves three basic sensory systems:

  • The tactile system (touch)- comprises a series of nerves passing information from the skin to the brain
  • The vestibular system (sound)- comprises a series of structures in the inner ear involved in movement detection
  • The proprioceptive system-a series of receptors in the muscle (proprioreceptors) which feed information to the brain about the body’s position

These three systems share a close but complicated relationship which allow us to experience, process and respond to different stimuli. Dysfunction in this network can cause hyper/hypo sensitivity, in addition to problems with coordination, behavior and academic issues.

Evidence from brain imaging studies has also shown that autists experience stronger responses in the brain to sensory stimuli in areas that process sensory information and the amygdala- an area that is involved in attention, emotional reactions and threat response.

But why is this?

Several studies have found evidence of hyper-excitability and hyper-connectivity in the autistic brain.

Evidence shows that in many cases of autism, the neurons located in the sensory cortex of the brain are more sensitive and excitable than others. This is kind of like how a person can be more ticklish in some parts of the body than another- the nerves in the underarm are more excitable than those of the arm.

The autistic brain has also shown signs of hyper-connectivity, where regions of the brain are excessively connected- like an overloaded plug!

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This amplifies memory formation, sensory processing and causes an autist to be hyper-emotional, which can make the world painfully intense. Scientists have theorized that autists prefer safe, controlled and predictable environments as a coping mechanism to actively avoid this pain.

Finally, studies have indicated that sensory issues, in addition to a number of other autistic behaviors, may be linked to neurotransmitter (chemical messengers between body and brain) levels in the body. As previously discussed, some neurotransmittersย are dysregulated in autism. Evidence suggests that in cases of autism, there are higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters, and lower levels of inhibitory (i.e. calming) neurotransmitters. These high levels of excitatory neurotransmitters cause neurons to fire excessively, which can influence sensory perception and processing.

I’ll expand a little bit more on the individual sensory issues at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoy your week everyone ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

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