Sarah Appleman MS, OTR/L is a published Author, Speaker and Pediatric Occupational Therapist for therapist 20 years. Sarah Co-Owned Paws 4 Peds in Long Beach New York. A unique facility that combined Occupational, Physical and Speech therapy while incorporating 2 dogs, 2 Herman’s Tortoises and a Malo Uromastyx lizard for animal assisted therapy. This facility inspired her to write “Paw Prints Learning”, a 3-part Handwriting Curriculum utilizing a multi-sensory approach to handwriting. In her newly released book, “Play with your Food”, Sarah combines her passions of working with the special need’s population and baking. Through fun therapeutic interventions, activities, and tips, she guides caretakers and children to enjoy the participation in the food preparation with fun games, while improving food repertoire of picky eaters. Sarah holds a master’s degree from Touro College in Occupational Therapy. She specializes in early intervention in children diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorders. Sarah has worked as a Senior Therapist & Supervisor for school districts, home care agencies and sensory gyms. She has also been published in Spectrum Magazine, Long Island Herald, and recently appeared on KUSI for Autism Awareness month.
Hello, and welcome to the autism in real life podcast. In each episode, you'll get practical strategies by taking a journey into the joys and challenges of life with autism. I'm your host, Ilia Walsh, and I'm an educator and the parent of two young adults, one of which is on the autism spectrum. Join me as I share my experience and the experiences of others so that we may see the unique gifts and talents of individuals on the autism spectrum, fully recognized.
Hello, everyone, and welcome. This is Aliah and I welcome you today to this episode today. I have Sarah Appleman. With me, and she is an OT. And her specialty is in you know, we'll we'll put it in quotes picky eating but you know, food sensitivities, food preferences, food aversions. And yeah, I think this is a really timely topic. But before we get into that, I'd love it if you just introduced yourself and gave people a little bit of background. Yeah, I've been an occupational therapist for I can't believe 22 years. It feels like I just graduated last year, but it does go pretty quickly.
I have been working with special needs children the entire time, like I just knew I always liked working with children. I started a company called Paws for peace, where we use animals to help children like animal assisted therapy. And then that led me down this path of like, just being really creative. That's what drew me to OT was like being able to use crafts, fun and different things. So I started that, which then led me to writing a book with my co author, ala Salangi called Play pawprints. And then that was a multi sensory approach to handwriting using animal bass. And so like the A is an alligator with its mouth open, and it gave teachers and therapists five different activities to do with the letter A and fun ways to write. And then as I continued on this creative path, I saw so many people with this picky eating, and I just had to try different things. And then that led me to writing Play With Your Food. So it's just been a bunch of fun, different, you know, alternative ways to incorporate therapy to helping kids grow.
Awesome. So yeah, and I went to your site, and I saw you have your intro video, which you mentioned that you combine your love of cooking, and you know, your the work that you do. And I it's awesome, because I know there's also I saw you on social media and I saw like you cooking with kids and stuff. And so that's like really fun. And I think this whole concept of playing with your food. I mean, right? I think there's, before we even get into how it's specific to the population we work with. We've been taught since we were like, right really little don't food and, and I remember having some friends, like we would be snack time I was super little I remember she would make animals out of her snack or like her sandwiches, like she would bite them in different ways. And I was like, oh, that's like, gross, you know? And that's because I was told you not supposed to play with your food. But right. It's like food is this multi sensory experience in and of itself. So I like how you've kind of, like brought those two things. Yeah, so I'm not a trained chef, like people always ask is like, I do bake. Like, since I was there, my mom used to bake also she went back to school and became a physician's assistant. But you know, and then I started to get more into the kitchen. But she baked like she she did, you know, amazing things and decorate and I'm like, Oh, that's really cool. But I never was taught you know how to do certain things. And I just was like, there if we're gonna eat, we're gonna I'm gonna have to learn how to you know, get in the kitchen. But like, you know, I just found that for me and my family when they come home from a long day of school, and you know, my husband comes home from his long day of work and the house smells good. You know, and they know they're gonna have that good, tasty, different meal like this one wants this and this one wants and I'm willing to, you know, do certain things, it's fine.
It just does bring them such a comfort and that's like that basic need for any person human is that that comfort, that stability that home, you know, and it just it really, especially now during this pandemic, you and yours been stuck in your home, and you need to make it you know,
enjoyable as well.
Little kids and this and that. And the chaos. So I found that that for us mealtime was always such a joyous, good, you know, and having company and they're always like, oh, you should open a restaurant. And I'm like, no. But that that moment where everybody's satiated and happy, and it's, it sounds cheesy, but like, their stomachs are full and there, they would tell me their souls and their hearts are full. It makes you feel good. And then I would study people whose homes that didn't happen, where kids are screaming and fighting, refusing to eat, or even as adults, you know, certain people just stay away. They don't eat fruits, vegetables, dairies, whatever it is. And now how can you make that home? How can you replicate that safe, loving home? If you have those adversities, and it's not intentional, you know, it's something going on. So that's where it all started, like, how can I share this?
I love the play with your food, because it was hardcover with the name.
Yeah, it's like, don't play with your food, don't do that. And I'm like, No, that that right there, that strict mindset
impacts people for like, even as adult, right? Like, will turn your kid like, don't put that down, put that down. And you're just like, but wait a second, if we can all just relax. And now I'm not saying have a food fight, or I'm not saying throw, you know, make a terrible mess. But just be creative. And, you know, turn those negative things from, if you don't eat this, you don't get dessert. If you don't eat this, you can't play your to game or watch your TV. And that's just putting up a shield. So no, turning in. Yeah, and creative, you know? Yeah. And I think you you brought up so many points, I think, you know, I really want to touch on that.
The the food as comfort piece, especially during times when there's a lot of stress around us, like you're saying now with the pandemic, you know, then it makes that correlation to everybody wanting to bake bread and people doing a lot of right, like all creating new recipes or all this stuff. It's, it's because we were trying to bring some stability to a very unpredictable environment, which is still kind of unpredictable.
And so that makes a lot of sense to me. And I think when I think about like the folks that we work with,
you know, I think sometimes there is such a negative association with food. And I think some of it is because we put like, you know, consequences to not eating certain things, or we create so many strict rules, even in adulthood. I mean, you could just scroll through social media, there's all sorts of rules that we could follow that generally don't work. And right, and so then we wonder why we have people who already have some challenges with sensory sensitivities, which you have a great blog on your site that really breaks down like the different components of like a sensory processing challenge, and how it relates to food, which I think is great. And then it's like, Okay, well that we already have that on top of being told You're so picky, or why do you only eat X or what you know, and then now it's like, now I become now a person who has eating issues, right. And we there's, I think that's a big popular, it's not just our folks that we work with, I think that's a huge part of the I mean, if you think about, like, let's just say I, we rarely go out, but let's just say we're gonna go out right away, you're like, Okay, where do you want to eat? And people always make fun of that, right? Like, oh, he asked the girl where she wants to go to eat and data. And I'm like, But why? Because where you want to eat, if you can eat anywhere you want, is limited to even how you're feeling on that day. Right? Are you in the mood for salad or soup? Are you in the mood for Italian or, you know, a fusion of, you know, whatever. So it's like, you're looking at any given day as adults, we make choices and change them. We're not going to eat, you know, Thai food on Monday, and then Thai food Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, you know, some people might, they might love it, but majority of the people will be like, Ooh, I'm feeling like, I want something a little spicy today versus I'm not feeling that great. I'm a little tired. I want something comforting, you know, and that's where that sensory component comes in, even as adults because we how we feel and how we're interpreting our environment is going to impact everything, our alertness, our balance coordination, what we put on our what we're wearing our clothing, okay, um, and then of course what we're gonna eat. So it is throughout our entire from childhood to adult affected. I mean, that's why you know, some days you wake up
and you're just like, Oh, I feel sluggish. And now being having to work or take care of children or whatever we're doing as adults, we can't just call it in and lay down all day and watching Netflix.
You know, that would be, I would love to just catch up on, you know, some TV shows and not have to do whatever. But we can't write we have to pay rent or, like, mortgages and bills and cars, we have to function, what do we do to alter some people will get up and just go for a walk wrong, do yoga, take a shower, have a cup of coffee, you know, and we use external means to help ourselves? Well, we kids have a hard time understanding what they need, and how to do it. So they may have that tactile, you know, they need that aversion to certain textures. And as a result, they're going to avoid sticky foods or, you know, wet texture or too crunchy or, and so they can say, I don't like the way this makes me feel. They're just No, I don't want that. I don't need that. So we have to then look at it through different lens and say, Hmm, I've noticed that my child doesn't eat this on any given day. Maybe I need to look into that a little bit more. And adults to like they some adults are ages and older have not been assessed, because it's even though this sensor has been around, way back, you know, from World War Two people were learning but sensory processing with children specifically, really woke in about 75. Around then in the 70s. But still, when I graduated in 2000, people still weren't talking about it. Only in the last few years has it, you know exploded where people are like, Oh, my God, sensory, I know sensory memory, Charles's sensory, as you know, like, speak,
But think about that. So as adults who had sensory issues, we didn't have it addressed, we just acclimated. And did it doesn't mean we are in the most productive way. It just means we had to deal with it differently, right. And so sometimes that's a concern, too, where parents are like, Oh, I noticed that when I was a child, I didn't like this. And as adult, I now avoid that. Whereas if we could have worked through it, we might have decreased anxiety ease, so that they could have better. Sometimes it's social parties, or, you know, going to concerts or going out to eat even. So it's something that we definitely want to touch on when they're kids so that they could have an easier time as an adult.
Yeah, no, yeah, you touched on so many different points. And again, sensory is now become such a common word. I mean, people will even use it to describe their state of being right will say, Oh, I'm just having some sensory issues right now. And we'll just say that, and that could be like one of 1000 different things, but but at least people will then kind of say, Oh, I know, you kind of need a little slice. Got it. And
so it's becoming part of our day to day language, which is nice. But when we think about like, specifically, you know, with with food, well, the other thing you add into here is the play piece. So I want to really get into sort of how the book is structured, and what your strategies are when you're working with people so that we can see how that play component, you know, marries really nicely, I think with the with food challenge. Yeah. So bringing it back, like again, like I like starting so I specialist right now ages birth to three. And I've worked from birth to adult, but my specialty is Birth to Three because I would be working with 789 15 year old. And I was like, Oh, if only I had gotten to you, when you were really young, this maybe would have been, you know, a little bit easier on you. So I went back, I would always jump back and forth just to change, you know, for myself to keep myself stimulated and excited about work. But going back to like, when I would have children coming to me.
And there are 678 and they all were like you know, by then you could see they don't want to get dirty and they don't want to eat and they don't want to touch certain things. And I'm like okay, let's bring it back. And so I would start the book has an overview very simply put in layman's terms about sensory processing and how it could impact on your ability to tolerate food textures, and everything. But and then I break it down to is actually a cookbook, you know, recipe book, so it breaks down where it
to let's say, an intro, you know, here's what we're going to do, this is what you're going to need, here are therapeutic tips on if your child is having a difficult time, try this. So that's why I did it. Because there's, you know, there's a million, oh, let's make, you know, fun cupcakes, so let's make fun, but they don't talk about what happens when that kid doesn't want to touch the frosting, it doesn't wanna, you know, is like touching like that, you know. So it'll say before, you're going to do this, warm your child up. So for example, let's say, we're gonna
go cook anything, it doesn't matter, I would tell the parent warm up with some sensory activities. So you could do heavy work like jumping jacks, or push ups or crab walking, or make an obstacle course, or take them to the park or anything to get their physical energy out, and then bring it to a tabletop activity. And we're going to, let's say, so one of the big things I do is I have a bin of rice. And it's all you can do beans doesn't matter. And you have to find hidden objects. So their focus isn't on I'm touching the rice is I have to look for the hidden object, and you could put their favorite toys, you could put puzzle pieces you could put, you know, objects you're going to use, it's just anything you want. And in the beginning, if you notice your kid is like, I always joy like, it's like the tiniest finger pinch of like, I will not, that is a signal red flag that they don't want to get dirty. Because it's dry. It's not like I'm asking them to dip their hands in slime. So when I see that, that's an indication of oh, okay, so then I would maybe give them a spoon, right? Because so that they could help Oh, let's see, oh, and then when you find the piece, there it is, okay, now get it. And I would maybe keep it very superficial. And then the next time we play with it, I would have them dive a little bit deeper, until they get desensitized to it, that they're digging in there. And they're used to it. And I've done this with smash graham crackers, you know, make it like a beach day of beach prep de kinetic sand, you know, so you're, you're getting them used to these textures. And then I have parents make a dough for before they make a dough that you know will go into just water and cornstarch, water and flour, you know, just to get them useful. Oh my goodness, look what's happening. And they don't want to waste it. I say find make pancake mix, you know, so you could actually then cook pancakes and, and there are kids who were not wanting to touch it. And next, you know, they saw me they would get their little stool and their spoon. And they were so excited to literally, you know, play with these objects because it made them feel calm and less anxious.
So I use different methods from playing a memory game. And the winner you get, you know, they're playing memory. And then if they get to strawberry pictures, they get to eat the strawberry. Well, instead of it being like, Oh no, you got strawberry, you now have the, it's a yay, you won. You look you match two strawberries, now you get it, that alters that whole interaction into such a positive way that they won. And it's a good thing. And they don't have to eat it, they could smell it, they could lick it, they can take a tiny bite of it. And then a mommy plays or daddy plays or brother plays or sister. And they went to and it makes it I've seen so many kids who refuse to eat excited when they win this, I've done it on Zoom sessions in person. And it's so cool because then they get like the mums like they've never eaten, you know.
cool and exciting. So you address it with like the littler kids of you know, making arts and crafts. I had the kids make flowers, like on the post today it's a flowers, and it's like cheese and celery. And like kids love it because they get to touch it and what happens there smelling, touching, getting dirty desensitizing themselves, they're more likely to eat it, the more they interact with it. I think it's really cool when you have people use, like a spoon to kind of you know, change it and I actually know some people who you know, love to cook but they don't really like the texture of certain foods, especially let's say raw meat or something like that. So they wear gloves, you know, and they put the gloves on and they're able to send they like serious cooks serious cooking happening. But that was the only that was the only thing that was the fix for making it work. And I also think this understanding that this is a really step by step process. And it's not about you know, making it it's not going to happen overnight. I think it's definitely like, let's look at the food. Let's keep it on the same table. Let's maybe put it on the plate. You don't have to eat it you
could just look at it, you can. And I really love that because it makes, it makes it less
scary and I think less intimidating. And you know, then we can just, hopefully we scaffold that so that we build on, you know, eat one, we start with one fruit or one vegetable, we just keep kind of hopefully adding all of that. And I think that's that's like, even like we says adults, like, if we made a list of certain things, or textures or stuff that we don't like, like, I can't send anything, it's, you know, like the sweaters that are itchy, or it gets your eye like soft, comfortable clothing, right. And there's a whole line Thank goodness for like, activewear being in fashion, because I'm like, perfect, you know, especially if I'm working with kids. Like, I don't want to wear you know, nice thing. Yeah, just comfortable. But not, you know, for me looking right. So, you know, but it's interesting, because as an as a child, I remember certain things I had to wear to school or whatever. And I was itchy and so uncomfortable. How did that affect me? In the classroom paying attention, had that affect me on the playground, I wouldn't want to run and play right? Like it's I would move and feel. So as an adult, there are certain things I also stay away from. And it's the same thing with food. Yeah, as a child, there are certain things that you may have hated. And then as an adult, you may stay away from that type of thing as well. But that doesn't mean that you will never be able to either tolerate it or like it. How do you desensitize yourself? So if you think about, I don't know, like, as a kid, I didn't like broccoli. Now. I love broccoli. Right? How did that happen? Right? It didn't magically happen. It was over time seeing it on other people's plates, going to restaurants and seeing it in foods. And then me maybe trying it with a different sauce and be like, ooh, that tastes actually good and complimenting it. So I tell parents the same thing. And adults. If you don't like it plain, make it fun to have put out tipping like cut it up into strips, and then add different fun little, you know, in pretty things. It's all about how you display it, you know, like little containers or little. Okay, great. Now, dip. Let's see which one do you like better? You know, and it's like, oh, well, actually, I like spicy, you know, homeless versus a ranch dressing. Or I like peanut butter with this one, you know, and all of a sudden kids are like, Oh, this is fun. Now let me try this with the red pepper, as opposed to the orange one. And see if that changed my you're doing the same thing. They're eating right? But you're pairing it. So I tell even adults like who don't like certain things, try with cheese sauce, try with a ranch try with the hollandaise, all of a sudden, you may actually come to like that vegetable.
Right. And, you know, again, I think
I like this approach. I think one of the things I want to address is the idea of, well, what why if people have aversions to certain things, right, because this is a conversation that's happening right now in the, you know, autism community, if people have aversions.
Well, maybe that's just how people are designed, right? Like, like, I don't like itchy sweaters either. I've completely dis wool does not exist in my closet, right? So I can make that choice as in as an adult now, knowing but you're right. As a kid, my mom probably put it on me. And she was just like, it looks cute. Just put it on. And I wouldn't say no. Right? Because I'm a kid.
So where do we? I mean, I think there is an important component of kind of building, you know, building some tolerance for some sensory sensitivities for sure. But can you help us understand? I mean, I don't I don't I'm not an OT. So I'm not going to be talking about but I know, you could probably say way better about why is it important to kind of work through some sensors? Yeah. So I, you're 100%, right, there's certain things that you're like, big deal. They don't like itchy sweaters, right? Like, who cares? But fine. That's true. As adults, you'll stay away from that and you'll, you know, find something that's comfortable and appropriate. The problem is when you're a child, and you have things that and again, I'm gonna say this it is a spectrum to sensory processing is a spectrum. So you have children who are under responsive and seeking sensation and then you have children all the way over here who are over responsive and therefore they avoid any situation that would go to do as we call it, like the rudders the seekers, the they jump, they touch they bang, they roll in dirt, they don't care and then on the other end, kids who will not go on playground equipment and they won't touch you know anything and they don't want to get messy right and then you have combo platters of kids will run at
the kids will run and jump the combination of the run and jump and then they don't want to get dirty. So you have all the right I love, I love the combo Connor.
Label every ball, okay, you're in this category because it's not true and accurate though I'm like, Alright, combo bladder is a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but you still have to address it, because what happens so that child who doesn't partake in arts and crafts, right, so they don't want to glue, they don't know, there could be also underlying concerns. That's what I tell parents, like, if you're bringing these sensory child, they're not they may have also fine motor, visual perceptual visual motor, it's gonna affect handwriting, it's gonna affect eye hand coordination. So sports might be an issue or dance if you want your child to go into dance. So you really want to figure out that bottom what's going on. And let's just say you have a kid, or even if you have two kids in kindergarten, and it's time to open the pumpkin, and get the seeds out and design right, you're gonna have kids literally gagging, throwing up refusing to touch have a full on meltdown, you have the kid who dives headfirst into it and is covered head to toe. And then you have the kid who's just like, they want to play with it. But they're, they're nervous. They don't like the way it smells or feels. But they don't want to feel left out of the class. So there's all this going on. So how do you dress each child so the kid who's like bouncing up and down, I like to give like that deep pressure, and calming maybe like they you know, they could even do to themselves like a deep massage. And you have like a sensory cushion they sit on. And then you give them Okay, let's take a deep breath. And then let's just scoop and our target is to put it into this bowl, right? So you're giving them an activity, the kid who doesn't want to touch anything, because they're, they're so nervous, I would say that's fine, perfect, that's a kid you give the gloves, you give them the spoon you give them you just have to maybe do one or two times that they feel accomplished. And that's okay for them. And you know, the kid in the middle, I always say like, Okay, you're going to count how many seeds one at a time. So maybe each kid is a little bit different. And then if you don't address it at that early stage, then the kid who may be wanting to really do it, but was anxious, you know, they're gonna start avoiding so many things. And they could be, you know, a great artist who just didn't want to touch charcoals, and paints and stuff, you don't want them to miss out on what they could be, because of their sensory stuff. And you don't want the kid who's labeled the disruptive kid to be that because they maybe aren't. And you see children, who, when they are properly addressed, have friends, open up more, get more confident and secure with themselves. And that changes their path throughout their school year. And, you know, like I said, I've been in high schools, where kids are low muscle tone, and they can't move. And like one kid fell in his like a hallway, kid just walked around him, didn't didn't pay, and it broke my heart. And I'm like, Oh, I'm coming into that classroom, for free. And I'm giving a lecture on, you know, how to work and how you know how to help this child. And like, we had therapists in the building, who like would keep an eye and they said, Oh, my goodness, she's come out of his shell, he has friends, they're more aware of the situation, they're sensitive towards it. And, you know, I don't want any kid to feel left out or insecure, or have issues that they didn't address, you know, and when you see that positive growth, and that that happiness for kids who were, you know, have balance issues or sensory issues. Now, I worked with them, and now they're on sports teams with friends, you know, and the parent will call me eight years later and be like, he made it to the high school, you know, basketball team, and like, Oh, my God, like, how exciting is that? So, you know, it's, it's just I don't want them to feel that they can't partake with things because of sensory concerns. That's, yeah, and I think that's what we don't realize how much of a barrier it actually can be. And I love how you say, you know, like the kid who maybe could have been an artist or could have engaged in a in a sport or some other activity or chef for that matter, right? Where, but because we wouldn't know because they wouldn't have had the opportunity to explore in the same way that maybe neurotypical kids would be able to. And I think you know, and correct me if I'm wrong, I think for there are many adults now or teenagers now who maybe didn't have like you
didn't have that opportunity. But I think the brain is such an amazing thing. And they right like it can still learn, and it can still figure out,
you know, new ways to kind of still work through some of those, you know, sensory difficulties 100%. And and even like we said, like adult kids, if you're working on something, and you make it fun, like exercise, right? How many people just get up and want to go for a run, there are runners, and there's everybody else, like,
get up and go for it, not because I love it, because I like how I feel when I'm done with it, right? And it gets all my energy out, and I can focus myself and I've learned that. So how can you make it fun? Well, that's why they have 1000 different studios, right? Because there's populations that go to boxing, or they do that orange theory, or they do whatever, because they know that fits their style. So you cannot put everybody neatly into a little, you know, category, everybody's different. Everybody likes different things. That's okay. It's just we don't want you to not to miss out on an opportunity, because you're limited for something that you could have helped. So that's really what it comes down to. And, you know, adults who have balancing issues, they're adults taking classes I see at Circus centers and and getting stronger and or they're getting more flexible, or, you know, because they just were very tight and had high tone and didn't think they could do it. And I've seen them, and it's really cool to watch adults make these changes and overcome things that obstacles that were in their way.
Yeah, no. And I think that's the other thing. It's not about I love how you said that, because it's not about changing who someone is inherently, we don't want cookie cutter people, we don't want people who are like the same things. And, and I think it's really just more about I don't know if this is the right way to say it, but like maximizing what someone's potential is to to explore the world around them. And I think that's a much different way that I think we have to remember that that's really what this type of work is about. And I did. And I think that's true for lots of different therapies that our kids, you know, we'll engage in or have engaged in. So yeah, I mean, thank you so much. I think this is this is really exciting. I really love your approach here. And I think we should definitely send people to your site, because you have some good information on there anywhere else that people can find more of your Yeah, so I know we do like a Instagram, it's Play With Your Food book. And the, the site I don't like there are so many people who charge for their sites. And I have been in positions where one of my children had, you know, issues and sends her needs and concerns, I had to you know, try to find way back then. And then I just felt bad like I don't, I don't want parents have to pay for stuff that should come to them naturally, you know, like through help and resources. So I have blogs that I've been writing handouts on are free Downloadables. And all of it is for for them to just use and parents could send questions through the website to me, and I'm happy I've done consultations or answered questions for them.
Then there's tick tock like Sarah Appleman is the just and it shows like a couple of easy things that I'm doing there.
So yeah, just I really tried to help because I want people to, you know, be able to go out with their kids and not have that anxiety for themselves and be able to feel comfortable. And enjoy enjoy mealtime. That's what it should be about, you know.
Yeah. Well, thank you so much. I will definitely put all of those contact information in the description. And again, you know, if people want to reach out to you and find you, that'd be great. And if still no, you know, they can reach out to me and I'll be able to point them in your direction. But thank you so much for being here. Thank you so much for having me. It was so much fun.
Excellent. All right, we'll take care.
Thanks for listening to autism in real life. This is Ilia Walsh. And if you like the show, please hit subscribe so you can get notified each time a new episode is released. I also offer training, consultations and parent coaching and would love to help you in any way that I can. You can check out my offerings at the spectrum strategy calm and when you join my email list. You can get a code to receive a discount off of an online class or a coaching session. Looking forward to hearing from you. Take care and see you next time.
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