Play as a Tool for Decolonizing Neurodivergence
In this age of rapid and overwhelming information, how does one choose what is important to learn? Opportunities to play are opportunities to learn. Play allows us to imagine ourselves in different realities, in different worlds where the rules are different, where we can be different. In these alternate worlds, we can demand more for ourselves. In these worlds, we can identify our needs and build rules and systems to meet our deepest needs. Just as someone imagined the world you see around you right now; the one in which neurodivergent needs go largely unmet – through play, we can imagine a world in which neurodivergent needs are met.
In this episode of the Embracing Intensity Podcast, host Aurora and Dr. Kimberly Douglas discuss the power of play in decolonizing neurodivergence. Dr. Douglas shares her insights on the relationship between play, imagination, and decolonization, and how they intersect in the context of gaming and world building.
They discuss the power of immersion, imagination, and safety in fostering a state of play, and how play can be a catalyst for expanding thinking and problem-solving. They explore the connection between play and power dynamics in society, particularly within the context of colonization. Dr. Douglas also shares her perspective on the need to decolonize neurodivergence and challenge oppressive systems that limit the expression of neurodivergent identities. The conversation concludes with a reflection on the possibilities and challenges of embracing play and creativity as tools for personal and societal transformation.
Stay tuned for this insightful conversation on play, decolonization, and embracing neurodivergent identities. Make sure to check out Dr. Kimberly Douglas’ work and follow her on social media for more valuable insights.
Dr Kimberly Douglass is coach/consultant to Neurodivergent Adults. She is currently constructing the first design studio of its kind, run by AuDHDers, for AuDHDers.
Dr Douglass became a full-time coach after working as staff, peer-reviewed researcher, faculty and administrator in higher education for over 17 years. She began the neurodivergence advocacy work over 13 years ago when she became the chief advocate for her Son who is neurodivergent. She has since gotten more in touch with her own neurodivergence. Dr Douglass is married to Dean Tate and lives in Tennessee.
In this episode:
- Dr. Douglas shares her background and expertise in working with neurodivergent individuals.
- The importance of safety and immersion in fostering a state of play.
- Play encourages imagination, ideation, and thinking outside the box
- The relationship between play and imagination, and the role of play in expanding thinking and problem-solving.
- How neurodivergence challenges societal expectations and the worker role
- The connection between play and power dynamics in society, and the need to decolonize neurodivergence.
- Why decolonizing neurodivergence requires understanding larger systems of oppression
- The possibilities and challenges of embracing play and creativity as tools for personal and societal transformation.
- Permission to play and decolonize can bring up grief but also opens up possibilities
* Rough Transcript *
Introduction to the Concept of Play
Kimberly: When I think of play, whether you’re talking about for a child or for an adult, you’re talking about immersion, getting really involved in the activity to the point that you escape.
That you let go of worries, that you can transform yourself or transport yourself. But in order to do that, something has to be present. And that is a feeling of safety.
Welcome to the Embracing Intensity Podcast
Aurora: Welcome to the Embracing Intensity podcast. I’ll be sharing interviews and tips for gifted, creative, twice exceptional, and outside the box thinkers who use their fire in a positive way. My name is Aurora Remember Holtzman. After years of feeling too much, I finally realized that intensity is the source of my greatest power.
Now, instead of beating myself up about not measuring up to my own self imposed standards, I’m on a mission to help people embrace their own intensity and befriend their brains so they can share their gifts with the world through the Embracing Intensity community, coaching, educational assessment, and other tools to help you use your fire without getting burned.
You can join us at embracingintensity. com.
Introduction to the Guest Speaker
Aurora: I am super thrilled to share with you the edited version of our most recent guests. Call with Dr. Kimberly Douglas on play as a tool for decolonizing neurodivergence this brought up such an amazing conversation and the full conversation you can find in the embracing intensity membership or the guest call library, which you can find in the show notes. or at embracingintensity.com and you can now access just the guest call library, which includes 40 plus conversations on topics related to neurodivergence, giftedness and creativity.
Starting out at just 2 49 to start and then 4 99 a month. That’s less than a cup of coffee for access to all of the amazing call discussion recordings.
We had so many awesome people. Join us on this call, including several people who are on my list to interview this year, including Sheldon gay of the new podcast. I must be bugging, which focuses on black giftedness. If you haven’t found it already, you should definitely check it out.
And I look forward to seeing Kimberly on that eventually as well.
And if you’d like to find out more about Dr. Kimberly’s model of decolonizing, neurodivergence from violence to love. You can find more information on podcast episode 2 53, or also the full discussion in the guest’s call library.
I hope you find this as thought provoking as I did. Enjoy.
Awesome. Welcome everyone. So glad to see so many familiar faces here that I haven’t seen on the calls. Very exciting.
The Importance of Play in Decolonizing Neurodivergence
Aurora: So I’m super thrilled to have Dr. Kimberly Douglas join us again to talk about play as a tool for decolonizing neurodivergence. And Kimberly and I met on TikTok years ago on some posts she made around gifted adults.
I’m going to let you go ahead and take over for now and we can see how this goes.
Kimberly: Okay. Thank you. It’s nice to meet everybody and glad to connect with you.
The Role of Improv in Expanding Thinking
Kimberly: I want to make sure I talked about improv in here. And it might not surprise you to know that I’ve taken an improv class and actually did a performance in improv. And what I have found with improv. Is that it has helped me so much in academic writing, in my thinking about life, you know, the whole yes and thing it makes my thinking expansive as opposed to like being closed off.
So one of the things I talk about in leadership is openness and acceptance and curiosity. That’s where the yes and comes in, and so it’s a critical part of gaming, and it’s also a critical part of this whole notion of decolonization.
Understanding the Concept of Play
Kimberly: And so I’ll just start by talking about play. And so I’m going to talk about play as a tool to decolonize neurodivergence.
So what I’m going to do is talk about play first, and then I’m going to talk about why we need to decolonize neurodivergence, and then bring it all together in talking about gaming as a specific way of playing to decolonize neurodivergence. And so when I think about play. I think about I’m encouraging you to think about play as a state of mind rather than an activity, but we can engage in all kinds of play activities so we can go outside.
We could play kickball, we could do theater, we could do hobbies, we could play space. I like mind mapping. So that’s an activity that is a play activity for me. But the real, the value that I want to focus on here is the state of mind that play allows you the state of being a play. And when I think of play, whether you’re talking about for a child or for an adult, you’re talking about immersion, getting really involved in the activity to the point that you escape.
That you let go of worries, that you can transform yourself or transport yourself.
The Role of Safety in Play
Kimberly: But in order to do that, something has to be present. And that is a feeling of safety. You have to feel safe to want to let go, to suspend your reality, to let go of the reality. And so when you are engaged in play.
It allows you to be involved in imagination. It allows you to ideate, to come up with new ideas, to think outside the box.
The Power of Play in Learning and Creativity
Kimberly: So in Finland, the first few years of their educational process, it isn’t standardized testing. It is structured and unstructured play. It is the opportunity to create in that environment.
And so last night on a live on TikTok, I was talking about play, what it is to people.
The Connection Between Play and Power
Kimberly: And one of my followers that’s a little sister was saying that play is about power. And that’s how we connect, which is a good way of putting it, because then that’s how we connect to decolonizing your divergence.
Who gets to play? Gets to decide what play is? Has the space to play? Who has the time to play all of those things are connected to power, who has the safety to play another person who follows me. Mika Nelson was saying that play is earnest. You are open, you are allowing, you are accepting, you are curious.
So it’s an earnest process. And then another one of the followers I don’t remember who to connect this to exactly. Let me see if I wrote that down.
The Power of Play: Problem Solving and Relationship Building
Kimberly: But another one of the followers, I think that came from that’s a little sister as well, was saying that play gives you the opportunity to engage in problem solving.
So, you think about if you’re on the playground as a kid. And there are three people there. Okay, well, we got to do something here. We got to make something happen here. So what characters are you going to play? What are you going to play with it? And so, taking the resources that you have and creating something seemingly from nothing.
I’m careful about saying nothing because the something that you have there is the potential for a relationship. So when we talk about play, we can talk about play is something that’s individual. And I had people and I’ve had people on lives to say, I’m afraid to play. I don’t want to think about, it scares me to think about playing as an adult because you have to feel safe.
You have to let your guard down. You have to immerse yourself. And so for some people, that process is only internal or it’s singular. They do it as an individual person, but also there’s play as community, and that’s the one that I think that most of us are afraid of is if I let my guard down, if I let myself go, if I allow myself to be present with these other people, what will happen?
Will I feel secure? Will I feel safe in that space?
Play as a Pathway to Vulnerability and Hope
Kimberly: And then there’s another thing I want to talk about here too when we talk about play is hope. I think you have to feel hopeful in order to want to let your guard down like that, in order to want to try new things. I believe you have to have the hope that whatever this turns out to be, it’s okay.
Because play, allowing yourself to be in this state of mind. It’s very process based. The activity, the immersion in the activity is the most important thing. It isn’t the outcome. Because the outcome could be any number of things when you start to play, you can wander into a miniature. Ouija board you know, if you believe that sort of thing and pulling the tug in the pool of a lot of different people, you don’t know theoretically where it would land.
The same thing, like you can use that and apply that to play. If you have three or four people who come together and put together a kickball game or put together any kind of activity organically, you just don’t know where it’s going to end up. But what you do know is that you can allow yourself to be present and it requires you to be present allows you allow yourself to be present to be open to be vulnerable.
So play is vulnerability.
The Challenges of Play in a Colonized Society
Kimberly: Now, let’s talk about how that bumps up against our society. So, in a lot of my work, I talk about colonization and I talk about the white supremacy delusion and the 15 tenets of white supremacy that holds our capitalist, race based capitalist system together. And what this system and this system of thinking requires is that you never go into yourself, because what this system requires is that for most of us, That we are always on alert and ready to work and do the labor of this system.
And the more marginal, marginalized identities you have the more you’re expected to just snap into position as the system needs you to. So if you are a black male, there’s a certain set of roles that you’re supposed to play when you’re just driving down the street and you have an encounter with the police.
There’s a place that you fit in the society, in this carceral society. This is that you cannot be at ease. You cannot relax if you’re driving your car. Oh my God, I’ve walked up there and I left my license at home. Then the whole world falls apart because within this carceral system, it says that you do not have the ease to be able to make that kind of mistake because it could end up with you losing your life and someone taking your life.
Understanding Colonization and Its Impact on Individuality
Kimberly: And so when you think about play in this context, It really bumps up against the demands of a colonized system. A colonized system thinks of you as a worker, thinks of you as a role. Thinks of you as a cog in a wheel, a piece of machinery, a piece of equipment is saying that you cannot own yourself. You cannot own your thoughts.
You cannot own your own feelings.
The Role of Play in Adult Life
Kimberly: But when you say that adults are supposed to have room to play, then that really Smack. It really juxtaposes. It really bumps up against this idea that you’re supposed to be available for work at every time.
Work vs Play: A Daily Life Perspective
Kimberly: And I don’t mean just the work you do at a job or in your career, but the work that you are performing in your daily life, the role that you are performing in your daily life.
And so you see the contrast between play and colonization.
The Need to Decolonize Neurodivergence
Kimberly: So now why decolonize neurodivergence in the first place? there’s A quote that I say that realizing late in life that you are ADHD or you’re autistic, you know, having some sort of late diagnosis like that is an invitation to decolonize.
And I say that because a lot of the ways that we think about neurodivergence, a lot of the ways that we frame neurodivergence. Even without recognizing it, we are framing a conversation about what type of worker we are. So if you look at and I won’t get too far into this, like DSM guidelines and how people get supports when they have certain needs related to AuDHD/ADHD, those supports are mainly built on shut up and get your ass back to work.
And so, That doesn’t prescribe play that doesn’t suggest that you should go and it suggests. That, okay, you got an attention problem. Well, let’s fix it with this so that you can get back to work. Or you have an issue moving from task to task because of your autism. Well, let’s just not let you work.
And why don’t you just go ahead and get on disability because people make it so difficult for you to move from task to task. And so if we think about neurodivergence.
Understanding Neurodivergence and its Pathologization
Kimberly: Or whatever neurodivergencies that are, that relate to you under that umbrella of neurodivergence as impediments to the worker role that you’ve been ascribed.
Then we think about neurodivergence we talk about how it’s been pathologized, but a lot of the pathology has to do with the fact that it interferes with the work that you are expected to do. And so. One of the things I noticed when I got on TikTok is I noticed the limits of the conversation about neurodivergence.
So there’s been this very robust conversation about neurodivergence and how people feel and different shared experiences. But I also noticed that after a certain point, the conversation hit a wall, and the reason I think the conversation hit a wall is because a lot of people go to apps like TikTok, Facebook, other places, and they’re looking for a certain validation, and they’re looking for validation about their individual experiences, which also is one of the tenets of white supremacy, focuses on individualism.
The Role of Systems of Oppression in Neurodivergence
Kimberly: But At some point, especially among white neurodivergent people, they were unwilling to talk about how these systems of oppression, these systems that demand that we work, even when it is harmful to us, or that we work a certain way when it’s harmful to us.
They are unwilling to talk about those systems of oppression and how those systems of oppression have harmed them and how they have participated in being agents of those systems of oppression.
So people were happy to talk about how they’ve been abused in their families. We’re not happy, but they were more willing to talk about how they’ve been abused in families, but not connect the values of the family to the values of these larger systems that demand certain things from them. They were willing to talk about how their parents abused them with money, but not willing to talk about how their access to money connects to larger harms within the systems in which we live.
And so, when I say we have to decolonize Neurodivergence, in order to understand how we really get our needs met as neurodivergent people, we have to understand what it is in this context. And this context is shaped by capitalism, race-based capitalism, and the white supremacy delusion. If we do not understand that, then we’re just talking about how we’ve been hurt by the system, or how we’ve been hurt as individuals, and not even as how we’ve been hurt by communities.
Decolonizing Neurodivergence through Play and Imagination
Kimberly: And so, how does this relate to play? And so, if you go back and you think about imagination, and even with play, like, we still have to do this sort of critical analysis. About play and imagination. We have to do the same type of critical analysis related to colonization because there are a lot of play spaces out there.
That are supposed to be allow fantasy and escapism, but one of the most racist spaces that exist out there is people who write sci fi and who do gaming because what is happening is rather than using imagination. They are finding ways to recreate the power dynamics that exist in this realm and carrying those over into play spaces into gaming spaces.
So I don’t feel safe going into a lot of dungeons and dragon spaces and people hitting me with the African American vernacular English and the microaggressions and things like that. But there are some safe spaces. You were people do dungeons, drags like that activities like that.
The Role of Gaming in Decolonizing Neurodivergence
Kimberly: So what I want to move into talking about, and then I’ll stop and just want to allow room for interaction is gaming in particular in the different types of games that exist out there are different types of games.
You can engage people in, but just understand that play activity is not necessarily being in the state of mind of play. And in the gaming environment in the science fiction environment, things that feel like play for some people will not be played for other people because of the thing that I said in the beginning.
Which is that safety is a requirement. It is a criteria for someone to be in a state of play in any environment.
So I want to talk about gaming in particular, or generally. And then we can talk about some features of gaming. And how this helps decolonize, very divergent. So gaming is an opportunity for play. To be engaged in play.
If you’re a game developer and I don’t just mean video games And I’ll explain that in just a moment But gaming game development is an opportunity for you to be immersed in play to do what is called world building So to clarify Gaming can be any number of things so it could be putting together a kickball game It could be Developing a video game.
Exploring Different Types of Gaming and Their Impact
Kimberly: It could be developing any kind of activity. I follow somebody who does a dice game every week on their farming with Tessa on TikTok, who does a dice game to decide what kind of potion she’s going to put together that week. So she has gamified Putting together a potion. So one of the things that the dice helps the die helps determine is whether that week she’s going to put a tea together or an anointing oil or some sort of elixir or a bath.
These are very powerful ways to engage your audience, engage your community by bringing them into a game. So it’s an opportunity for her to talk about spirituality without beating people over the head with things like, Oh, you just do this, you manifest this. And so she had, it allows a deeper conversation about spirituality.
So gaming could be what they call tabletop role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. There are lots of people on TikTok who are selling what they call role playing journals. So you create a journal that has an adventure that tells a story. So there might be multiple columns within the role playing journal where you get to, you roll the dice or roll a die and you choose from the column how you’re going to write the story.
But regardless of how you do it, the important part is the immersion that it allows the flow state. It allows the state of mind that it allows. So one thing about gaming, whether you’re talking about video games or just Tabletop role playing games. Is this idea of world building?
The Power of World Building in Gaming
Kimberly: And this is a book. I know this is backwards, but this is a book about world.
It’s a workbook from Angeline Trevina, who’s on TikTok. And I bought these through Amazon a couple of so one is mapping your world. And then the other one is world building. But this idea of world building speaks directly to colonization. So when you are developing a game, when you’re thinking of an activity that you want to engage people in, what is the world in which you want people to participate in this activity?
So is it like Something in the inner realm and under caves in the combs in France. Is it in a bedroom? In a bathroom? Is it on a school playground? What is the world in which you want this activity to take place? What are the rules? Who are the characters? What are the activities? What is the geographical, what is the topography?
How do the characters relate to each other? How do you resolve conflict in this world? And so when you start world building, which is also a tool they use in writing. So you start world building.
The Power of Improv and Engagement in World Building
Kimberly: This is the thing going back to improv. So when you do improv, you decide how big the world is based on things that you get from the audience.
It tells you what the parameters are for this world. It tells you what is allowed inside this world. And so this is why gaming can be really effective, especially for people who get bored very easily. Because what this does is it creates novelty. It also invites engagement with people. So if people can decide what the activities will be, or how the activities will be constructed, or how the world will look, then it keeps them from getting bored, and it gives them something new each time they play the game.
And it gives the ownership in the development of the world of this world, which is very different from our colonized system of being that says that even it pretends to give us freedom of choice, but it is very prescriptive about how we can live our lives, where we can go, what we can do, even if we don’t necessarily see it that way, there are prescriptions about how we move throughout our daily lives.
So I’m going to take a pause there for a moment and answer questions and then once People talk, we interact, then I’ll pick up and close everything out.
Aurora: Awesome, and talking about the world building thing, it just reminded me of there’s a local gal that I saw speak a few years back Walidah Imarisha, and she edited a book called Octavia’s Brood that talks about using science fiction to envision A better world. And so, I saw a really inspiring talk a few years back with her.
World Building to Envision New Realities
Aurora: But that idea that we can use science fiction or world building to envision a different world is really powerful.
Kimberly: Thank you for saying that because you have to be willing, to step outside your reality. And I think there’s a side conversation here about creativity, and you’re willing to express yourself creatively because for a lot of people that were shut off and cut off a long time ago, so you have to be open to new possibilities and If you’re doing some sort of world building, it can’t require the approval of a lot of people.
It has to be something that you’re willing to be vulnerable about.
Personal Reflections and Professional Background
Kimberly: By the way, I didn’t go into an introduction about myself because I know that you all got the email in advance. But these are the sorts of things that I work with people doing, like helping develop gains. I work with neurodivergent people.
And so most of my clients, ADHD, autistic some people having connective issues disorder a range of neurodivergencies. And my background is in academia and curriculum development, and I support people in. Setting up organizations and also developing the type of curriculum they’re going to share with their clients.
And so if this is something you want to reach out to me about, I think my email address is posted. Just follow up with me and we can schedule time to talk about this.
The Role of Play in Learning and Personal Growth
Kimberly: I want to pick up where learning, play is an important part of learning because what it does is it acts as a primer.
It creates. And also, depending on the type of plate that you do, if it involves your body, just that kinesthetic movement, that sensory input. Can make it a lot easier for you to learn things and to receive that information. And then also something else you said was interesting to me. Talk about permission to play.
And this goes back to the decolonization thing I know as a black person, and I can’t speak for all POC or can speak for all black families either. Because we have a history of worrying about how we look in public. Because it literally could get us killed. We are careful about how we play. Very careful about how we play and where we play.
And so, if you are, have some sort of marginalized identity if you’re Black if, you know, you are neurodivergent in some way, it can feel really problematic to just think about playing and give yourself permission to play especially in certain spaces.
So, I want to add and what I’m going to say may sound sad.
But it’s actually an opening. So one of the things, and this is also related to like the late diagnosis and feeling like, Oh my God, I should have known this.
The Emotional Impact of Embracing Play
Kimberly: But when you start to talk about things like play, don’t be surprised if it makes you
because it’s like, well, you mean to tell me that I could have been doing this and thinking like this the whole time I could have been getting these needs met the whole time. Like, I just needed to play, I just needed to do this, or I need to try this with friends or meet up with friends to do this and that,
it may bring up some grief and some not so good feelings to start talking about play. So like I noticed, like, people’s affect changes when I start talking about play, especially when they start to see the possibilities for it. Like, oh, that does make sense. But wait a minute. Well, what? Why haven’t I been doing it?
Well, shit. Wait a minute. And it just doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel good because you come to recognize how part of you has been cut off.
Navigating Neurodiversity in Education
Aurora: I reflect back upon the the school that I worked at for 14 years, which I always thought my own internalized ableism said that it was. I stayed there because it was predictable, everything kind of looked neat and tidy, everything, you know, it ran the way I thought a good school should run but the last few years, especially post pandemic, I saw how fiercely neurotypical the framework was and how I felt like I had to watch what I said around so many people and I couldn’t be, and of course there’s professionalism and there is a line, you know, I mean, there’s a whole Thing that’s something we have to unpack, I’m sure.
Kimberly: Yeah, that’s another show.
Aurora: I’d love to hear Sheldon and Kimberly talk about professionalism, but what I realized, looking at that list of tenants of white supremacy is that that my idea of being fiercely neurotypical falls right in those tenants as well. So, and now I’m in a project-based school that’s like half the staff is probably most of the staff is neuro divergent , and most of the kids are.
And we have about five more minutes left.
So, If you have any final thoughts Kimberly, that you’d like to share, and then we can circle back, I think a lot of you join the Mighty Networks community. If you guys have any follow up, feel free to share in the conversation. I’m trying to get more conversation on that group.
It’s hard when it’s off. Facebook or off a social media platform for people to remember to go check in and have discussions there. But I would love to encourage anyone to share your thoughts there or get the discussion going there as well.
The Power of Play in Community Building
Kimberly: So first of all, thank you, Aurora, for having me back and anybody who thinks they, you know, have a project they want to work on with me, I put my email address in the chat and Aurora has my contact information.
Reach out. Let’s make this happen. And my ability to work with you and to help people expand what they’re trying to do to build out what they’re trying to do is related to the things that we’ve talked about today. This grief process of my own decolonization and recognizing that there were parts of me that were cut off from myself.
There’s a necessary part to be able to open myself up and say, wait a minute, I had all these jobs. I did this, I did this, I did this, I did this. I was so busy trying to comply. So busy trying to impress. That I did not recognize the creative and intellectual labor that I was offering up to other people and I’m not telling people to go quit their jobs or anything like that, but I did not even because I was so lost.
In my role of being I’m supposed to produce this provide this type of commodification that I did not recognize. Like, when I look at the body of work over the course of my life, it’s like, wow, that’s very creative. That’s very thoughtful. That’s very insightful. And I actually do have really good ideas.
I really can help people elevate their own ideas. So when you. Start to look at things like play and decolonization. And you start to crack these things open. It is a way of cracking yourself open.
The Power of Play and Decolonization in Personal Growth
Kimberly: and so you have to be prepared for the sad part, but you also have to be prepared for the part where it’s like, I think I want to experiment with this.
I think I want to try this. Here are people that I can collaborate with. Here are people that I can bring into this conversation with me. Like it feels a little bit scary, but. I’m willing to try it. I never thought of myself who could as somebody who could do this, but actually, you know, I think I want to try this.
I think I want to travel to this place to go just sit down and have a conversation with this person about and diagram on a napkin what we’re able to do together. So once you allow yourself to entertain the notion that you are a being that should be playing, that should be creating, then it opens the door for things that may feel sad initially, but behind that sadness is so much possibility.
Aurora: Well, thank you so much. Kimberly, I’m so glad this, like, as always, anytime you’ve come to speak, it’s always a fantastic conversation and I appreciate you so much. And one of my, one of my big values is really supporting those people who are on the podcast and giving that platform, but I also want to make sure that you guys go out and observe.
Kimberly’s work on her own platform and her own, her writing, everything that she has to do. Because every time I hear from Kimberly, it gives me something to think about, even just her TikTok lives, anything. So go follow, go read her books, read her material. Kimberly, you’re amazing. I love having you and I appreciate you so much.
Closing Remarks and Invitation to Connect
Kimberly: Thank you. I appreciate you as well.
Take care. And reach out to me. You have my email address. And so let’s, let’s, let’s get it going. Let’s get the conversation going. Let’s get things moving.
Aurora: Thank you so much.
Conclusion and Further Resources
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