Backstopping: Supporting the Autistic Person in Your Life

The Scientist and I moved cross-country a few years ago. We made the drive In four days and by the middle of the fourth day I was on the verge of shutdown. It was way past lunch time, we were out of snacks and we were driving through Middle of Nowhere, West Virginia.

When we finally came upon a place to eat it was a McDonald’s. Just the thought of eating fast food made me feel nauseous. I said I would walk the dog around while The Scientist went inside to order. When he asked what I wanted, I said “Nothing.” By the time he came out with a big bag of food, I was sitting on the curb by the car with my head on my knees, wishing I could teleport myself the final four hundred miles to our new home.

The Scientist sat down to me and said,”I got you something.”

Even though I was so hungry that I was light-headed, I couldn’t imagine being able to eat a burger or fries.

“I don’t want anything,” I said.

Undeterred, he reached in the bag and took out a container of oatmeal. When he opened it, I saw it was topped with fresh blueberries. He’d found the one thing on McDonald’s menu that wouldn’t totally repel me. I was so happy, I nearly cried.

What’s the point of this rather boring and uneventful story? It was the first memorable instance of something I’ve come to think of as backstopping.Β 

Finding the Right Balance

For readers who aren’t familiar with baseball, the backstop is the tall metal fence located behind the batter. It keeps foul (mis-hit) balls from flying back into the bleachers, but it also saves the catcher a lot of work. If the pitcher throws a wild pitch that gets past the catcher, the backstop will “catch” the ball and the catcher won’t have to run fifty or a hundred yards to track down the ball.

In that McDonald’s parking lot, The Scientist saw the ball that was getting by me–I was too close to shutdown to realize that I wanted to eat something bland and that hunger was contributing to my crash. Instead of saying “you need to eat” or “go find something to eat”, both of which would have been met with negative responses, he recognized my crisis and went in search of a solution.

But not before giving me a chance to catch the ball myself, which is a key point. He didn’t just rush off to buy me lunch without first asking a couple of times what I wanted.

Backstopping is by nature a form of back-up support. It’s a trickyΒ balance of recognizing that a potential crisis is arising and then giving me a chance to deal with it before stepping in to help or offer support.

Sometimes it requires reading between the lines and guesswork, like the McDonald’s incident. But sometimes it’s as simple as him saying, “hey, wouldn’t you be more comfortable if you sat on that side of the table” because he’s noticed that I’m about to sit down facing the restaurant’s chaotic open kitchen. And sometimes it’s about being ready to offer support, just in case.

My daughter reminded of the importance of this a few weeks ago. While we were out shopping, someone asked me an unexpected question and I floundered around a bit before finally blurting out an answer. Jess watched quietly and after the person left, I expressed my distress at struggling so much to find the word I was looking for.

She casually said, “Don’t worry, I was ready with it if you really couldn’t get it.”

That was perfect. It made me feel like she respected my competence and was patient enough to let me get to the answer on my own if I could. But she was also ready to support me if I couldn’t.

The beauty of backstopping is that it’s unobtrusive and supportive without being smothering or invasive. It makes me feel like the people around me care for me without having to act as caretakers.

backstopping

Putting Backstopping to Work

Watching backstopping in action has gotten me thinking about how other people could put it to use to support an autistic people in their life. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Be observant. Often, the precursors to a crisis are obvious in retrospect. Each of us has specific things that trigger our sensory sensitivities, cause us to struggle in social situations, etc. We also have our own unique “tells” that signal when a shutdown or meltdown is imminent. By watching carefully, you can learn to recognize precursors and be on the lookout for them. The Scientist sometimes asks me what triggered a shutdown or what I was feeling during a key moment. I think he’s secretly building a precursor database.

2. Be prepared. What works to head off sensory overload? What strategies are best for making difficult situations less stressful? What kind of support is most useful? Sometimes observing our instinctive reactions to a situation can reveal useful strategies. But sometimes our instincts aren’t the best and a little post game analysis is necessary to work out a better plan for future occurrences. Asking questions like, “what do wish had happened?” or “what would have made that easier for you?” can be helpful. Some autistic individuals, especially children, might need more specifics, like, “did you want to leave the room when Joey started crying?” or “did you want me to tell Aunt Joan that you were tired and wanted to play quietly with your toys instead of playing a game with your cousins?”

3. Be patient. When someone is struggling, it can be tempting to simply step in and do the thing for them. But remember, the backstop is located behind the catcher. It doesn’t jump out and catch every ball that looks like it might go astray. It’s important to give the autistic individual in your life a chance to try and perhaps to fail before you offer support. The Scientist didn’t immediately go order food for me. He gave me multiple chances to recognize that I needed to eat and that hunger was contributing to my shutdown. Only when it was clear that I was already crashing and not in a state of mind to make good self-care decisions did he step in.

4. Be nonjudgmental. Sometimes backstopping means “doing the obvious.” If the autistic person in your life struggles with the same thing over and over, it can be easy to get frustrated and wonder why they “just don’t get it already.” The thing is, sometimes we have blind spots in areas that are obvious to others. We may not sense that we’re hungry or in pain. We may not realize that we’re putting ourselves in a position to trigger sensory sensitivities or we’re overdoing things socially. Rather than saying things like “why can’t you just _________” or “are you ever going to learn to ___________” try gentle reminders, prompts or leading questions.

5. Be ready to step back. Sometimes, once The Scientist points something out, I can “reboot” the necessary subroutine and get myself back on track. When this happens, he has the grace to step back and let me take over my self-care or whatever he’s been supporting me with. He’ll even do this when he suspects I’ll goof up because he knows that having a sense of independence is important to me.

Not An Instant Fix

Backstopping is a delicate art. As a friend or family member, it’s hard to watch someone you love struggle with something that seems easily solvable. As an autistic person, it’s hard to find yourself facing the “same” crisis repeatedly, feeling as if you’ve learned nothing from the ten iterations that came before it. Navigating these situations can require some emotional tightrope walking at first.

In the past, I was prone to resenting any help that was offered. I think The Scientist caught on to this early and finally found a way around my defenses by keeping his assistance really low-key. He doesn’t make a big deal out of offering it and (even more important) he doesn’t make a big deal out of how much better I feel as a result of it. That might sound strange to someone who has a good relationship with accepting support from others, but I suspect there are a bunch of you who know exactly what I’m talking about.

For my part, I’ve become better at suppressing my No Reflex, which makes it easier for me to consider alternative solutions. Or in some situations, any solution at all. I’ve also accepted that there are times when the ball is going to get by me, no matter how responsible, independent or careful I am. When that happens, having someone around to backstop me can prevent a deteriorating situation from spiraling into a full-blown crisis.

84 thoughts on “Backstopping: Supporting the Autistic Person in Your Life”

  1. Oh wow! You are sooooooooo lucky with The Scientist and your daughter. Could you replicate them somehow? You’d make a fortune! I so wish I had someone like that in my life. As it is I make do with letting my imagination go and having a person in my head to give me advice – like a cross between having an imaginery friend and giving myself advice. The benefit is that its sometimes easier to take advice from someone else and if I’m imagining someone else giving it then its like having another point of view. No idea if that’s made any sense or left me sounding like a lunatic but on here it doesn’t seem to matter, I can be me πŸ™‚
    Anyway, you’re very lucky, they’re lucky to have you, and we’re lucky to have these posts!

    1. I do this too! All the time! I still have imaginary friends. If something really interests me, and no one is around right this very second and I also suspect it would bore them to tears, I have the most amazing conversations (actually even in my head they are frequently still monologues) with people I’ve just made up on the spot. Or maybe it’ll be an actor or author or public figure I want to meet, or my new neighbour whom I like but don’t want to scare away by letting him get a hint of what I’m actually like. Eventually, if the imagined conversation goes well enough, the other person can start giving me advice. My husband is very supportive, and I have one friend whom I suspect is not going to be at all surprised by my diagnosis, if and when I get it, but nobody understands me like the people in my own head!

      1. That is very reassuring! Sometimes I think I’m a bit (and some) odd, or a bit childish so its good to know I’m not alone. In my head I can be me, and people understand me in there. But here is the only place I’ve ever shared that because I’m not convinced anyone else would get it. I half-mentioned it to a counsellor once but he gave me a weird look so I figured maybe I wouldn’t say anything else!

        1. I felt the same but, in the light of having ASD, it’s one of my habits I am delighted to be able to finally embrace. I always thought I’d have to grow out of this habit eventually, or keep it locked away in shame, only to come out on very special occasions. I felt shame even when there was no one around to catch me being odd. Now, however, it’s a case of ‘This is my brain. Get over it.’ I hope to be half as accepting of other traits in time.

        2. I have imaginary friends that talk to me, listen to me and know exactly when I need a touch on the shoulder or a jab in the ribs. (One of them, a boyfriend, owned a brand spanking new Mustang. When I started to get mad because he never drove when we went places together, he sold the car and bought me a pair of earrings.) I told my counselor about about my imaginary boyfriend and she looked at me weird. The next week she told me that she had talked to her advisor about it. She was concerned that I was showing signs of schizophrenia. Turns out that as long as the friend is kind, understanding and supportive you’re okay. If you imaginary friend belittles you, lies to you or tells you to do things that are bad, then you have a problem. So…

          Friend — happy, happy, joy, joy
          Frienemy — Talk to your counselor. If your imaginary friend is an imminent danger to you or those around you, call 911. (Emergency response.)

    2. This made me smile. I talk out loud to the people in my head especially when I am in the bathroom and my family are always asking, “Who were you talking to?”

      1. I love this conversation… I don’t general speak out loud, but I have very long, detailed conversations in my head with people I know, and just with myself. A lot of times it helps me process, especially without being judged.

        1. I talk to myself in the mirror a lot. I think I study myself, my reactions, how my mouth forms around words. I remember the exact day I stopped talking to myself as a child, so embarrassed was I to be caught out, knowing somehow that I was supposed to be years beyond this now. On my own during the day, I’ve slowly let it creep back in, and it’s like the return of an old friend. It definitely helps me process the day, or specific events or emotions.

        2. Me too! It’s so nice to find people of the same ilk. I talk to myself (and my plants) all the time – out loud and in my head. I talk to my friends – real and imaginary – in my head, whilst simultaneously thinking “Wouldn’t it be awesome if the real-life conversations were as fun and interesting as the ones I have on my own with you all!”. My mother talks to herself, too, so I don’t think it’s as ‘nuts’ as other people might think.

          1. Your comment about talking to your plants reminded me of when I was a teenager and I was giving my plants a telling off – all well and good but it was out loud and my sister heard. She never let me forget it!
            If only real-life conversations were as good πŸ™‚

    3. I am very lucky. Since I noticed this happening, I’ve been trying to do the same for them where I can. πŸ™‚

      And I have imaginary conversations in my head all the time. It seems like a great way to process things without having to burden actual real people with all of my loopy thoughts.

      1. Your Scientist does indeed sound wonderful. My poor husband tried to do things for me, but I was usually too distracted or clueless to notice, so now he points them out to me, in part so I don’t accuse him of being unhelpful, but also for my benefit too. I feel better knowing I have help on hand, and sometimes I need the fact that I do have support spelled out to me. In the morning, when I am not at my best, he has the kettle filled up on the stove because turning it on is the first thing I do. He also has the kitchen all tidied up, because he knows this is the place I shuffle to, still half-asleep, and if I see work that needs to be done I will start my day stressed and upset. He does prefer me to ask for what I need, however, so, for both our sakes, I will need to get better at that. Things only need to be said once to him, mind you – unlike me πŸ™‚

        A girl I used to know in college and I were discussing the different ways in which she and I chose to write. She preferred to write about things that were unfamiliar to her, whereas I stuck rigidly to what I knew (how did I not see the signs? So many signs). She said she’d get bored, because it would be like having a constant conversation with herself, and why would she want to do that? It’s like being friends with yourself: same-old, same-old. I blurted out, ‘Oh no. I’m perfectly happy being friends with myself. There’s so many voices up there, there’s no way I can ever get bored!’

  2. This has made me smile πŸ™‚ Your Scientist sounds lovely. In my experience it is a rarity to come across people who can support in a way that makes one feel ok. I thought it was an impossibility until last month on one of my rare pub outings with a couple of new friends…The garden was closing which meant that everyone had to go inside…I must have emitted some kind of inaudible ‘AAARGGHH – HELP!’ signal, which one of my new friends picked up on. As we entered the incredibly rammed pub with it’s battery of noises, lights and smells, and sat down, she just casually said “Hey, why don’t we see if we can sit outside at the front of the pub so Amanda can carry on enjoying the evening and follow what’s being said”. So we did. I was soooo grateful, I could’ve hugged her and cried (but I didn’t, obviously πŸ˜‰ ). It was the first time that someone had thought of ‘helping’ me and, like I said – we’ve only been mates for a few months….no other friends that I’ve known for YEARS have ever supported me like this before!

    1. (totally unrelated but it’s funny that my post says ‘9:08am’, when in my part of the world it’s actually 14:08)

  3. Reblogged this on Autistic Academic and commented:
    One of the (many) things my husband does for me and for which I am hugely grateful. His backstopping has saved us both from innumerable meltdowns/shutdowns and let us go on doing whatever we were doing (attending a party, grocery shopping, etc) instead of having to drop it all midway.

  4. I want all of this on a T-shirt. (Okay, so it’s a bit long for a T-shirt… it might have to be a maxi dress instead). This is *exactly* what I need from people. πŸ™‚

  5. Oh, heavens, The no reflex is my life. I spent a lot of my high school/college years wondering why I wanted friends but still said ‘no,’ and meant it, to every chance people offered me to socialize. It’s better, a bit, but I find it still really hurts me in a lot of ways, particularly at work.

    My mother was a backstopper for me as a kid, and still is, sometimes, though I think she more often stepped in and hit/caught balls herself for me. I remember when I was little and she would ask me if I wanted something when everyone else was getting something (say, ice cream, for instance). I would always say ‘no’ (usually because I felt like I *shouldn’t* want the thing, or couldn’t decide if I should want the thing, or if I actually wanted it), and she would always interpret it as ‘yes,’ which was usually accurate. It does mean that as an adult I feel very fuzzy on yeses and noes, and have to work hard to figure out when I actually *mean* no. Something else that makes relationships hard! When I try to establish boundaries and am not even sure if I mean my noes, it gets confusing for everyone involved.

    1. I can see how those childhood experiences combined with a strong no reflex would make the concept of yes and no confusing. It sounds like your mother’s response to “no” was helpful in the short term because you didn’t go without things you really wanted. But long-term is probably muddied the “what do I want?” waters a lot.

      My No reflex was intense until the past year or so. It’s calmed down a bit but when I’m feeling overloaded or tired or stressed, it will come roaring back with a vengeance. I’m hoping to eventually extinguish that as well, but it feels much more difficult.

      1. Being tired makes such a big difference, doesn’t it? I’ve never taken my sleep schedule seriously, but I’m beginning to see that if I get even the tiniest bit less sleep than I need, I behave much more rigidly the next day.

        Yeah, I’m still trying to work out what I want when people ask me yes/no type questions, these days. The trick is that my mother is still my greatest supporter when I have emotional troubles and she’s an ‘instant problem solver’–if there’s a problem, she solves it immediately, even if no one’s directly asked her to! So I’m having to learn to say no to her, even when she wants to support me and solve my problems. At the same time, I don’t want to alienate her, because I care for her and do need her support. Talk about co-dependency ;P

    2. I see some of what you say about your mother doing too much in the situation with my sibling and I. I had to fend for myself more often as I left home to finish high school. I had to do allot for myself but my sibling has more trouble making dentist appointments and other tasks like that. It could be our level of impairment is different. He is less anxious than me, but the extra time at home might be a part of it too.

  6. My natural instinct has always been to try to do this exact thing for my friends… I never realized until just now that it’s what I’ve always hoped for/wanted/needed them to do for me too.

  7. I’m so pleased to finally have the language to describe this kind of support! My partner does a fair bit of backstopping, and it has definitely made both our lives go better. I’ve also historically had trouble accepting support, but I think receiving the kind that comes with the presumption of competence has helped gradually ease some of my anxiety on that front.

      1. Yes, I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on it! My own resistance to help seems to emerge from a mishmash of different things (including some internalized ableism that’s proven difficult to shake).

  8. Ok that was actually romantic of your hubby…I think so anyway and my husband is the same. He is subtle but patient and usually know what I need but gives me massive doses of respect. I could not live life the same without him because he know so well…So do my children. We are consistently discussing our meltdowns and shutdowns to be able to better help each other. This post gave us even more words! Thank you! And I do the exact same thing on trips or shut down. I need bland food and I don’t feel like eating but I will flip out and cry if the food does not happen fast with the right thing…and if I do have something I can tolerate, my body quickly recovers ten minutes after the food and I am back to regular functioning. It is why when I was pregnant I would prefer to be late to a dinner and get to eat right away instead of waiting because I was always pregnancy sick and needed to eat immediately at certain points!:)

    1. I find that kind of thing really romantic too! Moreso than flowers and such.

      “if I do have something I can tolerate, my body quickly recovers ten minutes after the food and I am back to regular functioning.”

      Exactly. The right kind of meal will bounce me back from the edge of shutdown when I’m having one of those ‘hangry’ moments.

  9. It is wonderful you have such great people around you! If I had someone I’d have them read this. Very well explained.

  10. I can’t express what a lifeline this blog has become to me! I have a daughter recently diagnosed on the spectrum. For most of her life I’ve struggled to understand what she’s thinking and feeling, as she’s not verbal enough to tell me. Your posts, and all the thoughtful comments, are a revelation. Backstopping is exactly what I’m learning to do.

  11. Love this: “Backstopping is by nature a form of back-up support. It’s a tricky balance of recognizing that a potential crisis is arising and then giving me a chance to deal with it before stepping in to help or offer support.”

    Great post, thank you!

  12. I had oatmeal with fresh blueberries for breakfast today. And my husband has always been hugely supportive and patient with me. I can see what a big help he has been to me.

  13. That is very helpful. I’ve had the “co-dependent” card at me when I’ve been supportive and there for my husband. He did not have a diagnosis at the time, and it made me feel ashamed for helping him. I can see when he needs to eat a yogurt because dinner isn’t quite ready yet, and hand him one. I’m so glad I found your blog.

    1. I’m so glad you did too. It’s just plain silly for someone to call another person co-dependent for supporting someone who is disabled and benefits from your ability to spot what they need at key times.

  14. I’m also the kind of person who puts a very high value on independence and self-sufficiency, and you’re definitely right that it’s tricky to pull off, because there are so many shifting boundaries and sensitivities to work with. It really takes someone who knows you well, or at least is really good at paying attention. My last boss was/is absolutely amazing at it, so is my youngest brother, and he has an autistic son who is so lucky to have J for a dad.

    For me there’s another thing to consider for anyone being the “backstop”, which is not to make a big deal of how you’re standing back and not interfering. I’m thinking of a person hovering just on the edge of my personal space, whatever that might be given the situation, like they’ve measured it precisely and know exactly where the line is. There’s a look of mild and “supportive” concern, or a look shared with whoever I’m talking to that says “I’m trying to let her do this on her own, let me know if it’s not okay, but nicely, we don’t want to upset her”. It’s that kind of offensive that can be really hard for us to name, sometimes for a really long time as we keep thinking about it, so that when we try to call it out, we’re the ones being unreasonable. And sometimes it really is well intentioned, which makes it easier and harder at the same time to sort out.

    1. “which is not to make a big deal of how you’re standing back and not interfering”

      Yes, absolutely. It’s so important that it be done in a way that isn’t condescending or patronizing. I hate it when people do that, as if we’re oblivious and won’t notice. If anything, I think we’re more sensitive to when someone is being condescending, patronizing or is concern trolling. Gah. I have no patience for that kind of approach.

      1. Oh yes. I have a very finely tuned condescension detector, and I’ve noticed people treating me (and others) this way since I was a kid, which tells me that people knew there was something odd about me even though they never told me. It’s kind of the worst when you can tell it comes from a well-intentioned place — someone who’s spooked by the word or idea of “autism” (or whatever’s applicable) and too scared to actually talk to you about it. I’m torn in those cases between sympathising with them, because I know it took me a long time to integrate autism into my idea of myself, and being angry because I think they should know better.

  15. I love this post so much that I have featured it on my “Cool Posts from Other Blogs” on my homepage, with attribution and links of course. Please let me know if you do not want it there and I will be happy to take it down. Thank you! Elizabeth

  16. Thank you for putting into words what my husband does so effortlessly. Thank you for the reminder to acknowledge and appreciate our loved one’s actions. πŸ™‚

    1. I probably should have included that second point more explicitly – I do make a conscious effort to appreciate when these things happen and let the other person know how valuable their insight is.

  17. The metaphor of backstopping is really helpful for me as a parent (and also as a partner). I am working to step back and give H, now 15, more room to develop his own resources, make mistakes, problem-solve, be self-determining, and more…

    As we both transition from a parent/child role to one that is slightly (and increasingly) more adult/adult, I sometimes find the lines unclear and confusing about when I should step in and how to do so respectfully as my role as a parent shifts and changes. I’ll carry this image with me to help me unwind the complexities when I am struggling with the delineation of this!

    Thank you for the conceptual naming!! Wonderful! All the love ❀

    1. ❀ As the former parent of a 15-year-old, I hear ya. If it helps at all, Jess recently told me that while it was hard, she's glad (and grateful) that we allowed her to make mistakes and make choices for herself as a teenager, even though they were sometimes not the best. Obviously we stepped in if we thought she was potentially endangering herself (deciding it would be fine to nearly flunk chemistry: eh; jumping off 30-foot tall viaducts into a river: get read the riot act, in triplicate), but we did give her a lot of space. She credits that for her being more level-headed and better able to work through difficult problems than some of her peers are now that she's in her twenties and completely on her own.

  18. I love the Backstop analogy, and the great way the Scientist and your daughter carry it out. Thanks so much for explaining this concept to me. Now, I have a question for you: Have you ever had to offer the same type of backstop support to your family? I imagine the answer is probably Yes πŸ™‚

  19. I find that being a mother to one asperger and one dyxpraxic is a challenge when I am an autist myself. I really want to solve the problem rather than fiddle with things. This has been one thing we have struggled with in our family. Three people like that can be annoying. My poor husband. But there are some things that have ended up working for us. My dyspraxic son tells me to guess and I know that something is bothering him and he wants me to figure it out with him. That’s something I can do. My asperger son hates to be taken notice of. So when sometimes I am able to see that something is bothering him I just ask in a telling manner. And then we guess. My husband acts as a quiet support of all of us and has had to learn the hard way that we do not mean to hurt his feelings when we say things. I really pity him at times. Three all too honest people has to be difficult for someone who isn’t in that place himself.

    I see my head is meandering. Sorry. But that is where I am today.

    1. Your husband sounds like he’s managed to learn to navigate the “prevailing winds” in your household pretty well. πŸ™‚

      I have a really strong fix it reflex too. Over the past couple of years I’ve been trying to learn to support people in their preferred way, but man is hard.

  20. Cynthia I hope you don’t mind but I added a new sidebar to my blog just of links to certain posts of yours…as I have never had anyone write posts that are sympathetic and put in terms that people can understand who are just delving in to understanding Autism. Plus, most parents of Autistics who do not have it themselves often miss some of these explanations from people who are experiencing it and are able to actually explain it…So if you could check it out and let me know if you are ok with it so I can keep it up in good conscience? It is below my labels on the right hand side bar. Thanks! ( oh and let me know if there are a few other key posts I should add…ALL of your posts are good! This was just a started for people with key posts.:)

    1. Wow, thank you, I’m honored. Which is the opposite of minding. πŸ™‚ I think the posts you chose are great and can’t think of anything to add.

      I added you to my list of recommended blogs on my sidebar (which I should have done a long time ago, but it’s woefully neglected and hasn’t been updated in like 6 months).

  21. I’m glad to have a new term to use (backstopping) for something that I want to do for others, and to do it more thoughtfully and respectfully. .
    In another time and place the term might have been “respectful kindness.”
    Also, I, too, have a voice in my head who gives advice and/or alternative views in some areas of my struggle to understand the world around me.

  22. I sent this to my roommate, who is my personal backstop. She’s a lifesaver. Thank you for putting it into words so well.

  23. The Scientist reminds me my own partners, especially my spause (who is, BTW, a scientist… πŸ˜€ ).
    It was really great read. I like your blog very much. πŸ™‚

  24. Having just lost another woman I really loved because she couldn’t cope with my meltdowns (and fears, and massive collections, and inability to bring myself to live with her, despite my love for her), I really envy you having someone so understanding.

    I’ve only realised that I’m on the spectrum since the break-up, however, despite the fact that it should have been obvious thirty years ago at least. I’m very grateful for everything I’ve been reading on your site, but I find it hard to celebrate being on the spectrum. At the moment it feels like nothing but a curse.

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