Awareness: A Plea for Local Empathy

autism_childby Jerika L.H.

Last week, I accompanied two friends to the movies to see The Witch. As the opening credits began to roll, two women and a child in what appeared to be a wheelchair came in and found a seat to the right of us on the ground level.

She turned the wheelchair to face the wall opposite the movie screen and gave her son some blankets and stuffed animals. Seconds later, the child began to let out an intermittent, light moan and rock back and forth, which indicated that the child was special needs.

About 10 minutes into the film, a woman in the upper rows shushed the child as he was moaning. About two minutes later, she shushed him again and the man she was with said, “Can you please quiet your kid?”

The mother didn’t respond and everyone went back to watching the film for another 15 minutes. When the child went back to lightly moaning, the woman went down the row to where the two women and child were seating and semi-whispered, “Excuse me but the noises are very distracting. This is a theater and we are trying to watch a movie.”

The mother responded loud enough for everyone to hear, “I’m sorry but my child is special needs! We have every right to be here.” The woman quipped back, “I’m not saying you don’t have a right to be here but, come on. You’re not being very courteous.” The mother was not going to back down.

“Courteous? You are the one who shushed an autistic child and are now talking during the film, distracting everyone else.” The woman’s husband came down to defend her. “This isn’t a kid’s movie! Take your kid home! He’s scared. That’s abuse!”

The mother retorted. “I’m the mother, that is up to me. You don’t know my child, please don’t tell me what is best for him. He is not in view of the screen and is fine. He moans because he is autistic.”

The man responded, “So what if he can’t see the screen, even the music is scary. Autistic kids are sensitive to that.”

By that time, someone had notified the theater staff and the lights in the theater turned on. An employee walked in and stood by the entrance ramp as the couple went back to their seat. The mother was noticeably upset and was being consoled by her friend. She lasted only another minute or two before gathering her things and leaving. The lights resumed and we all went back to watching the film.

As soon as it ended, I was surprised to find that my two friends were quite polarized by the issue.

One remarked that “the guy was right… it’s not a kid’s movie. And it was impossible to hear or concentrate while he was moaning.” At the same time, the other said, “They were just using that as an excuse to make them leave. The child can’t help it, the family lives with that every day. If you have to be inconvenienced for 120 minutes, then so be it. Just tune it out. It’s about inclusion.”

As we exited the theater and dumped our trash, the mother and her two companions were standing at the corner, as if to invite anyone to confront her if they felt they needed to. She had obviously been crying. My friend commented to her, “I’m so sorry! That was so horrible. You should have stayed.”

With a few tears escaping she said, “Yeah, it’s really hard. People are so ignorant.” She divulged to us that this was her first child and she dedicated every minute of her day to taking care of him.

She also told us that he was hearing impaired, did not have his hearing aid in and is soothed by the dim lighting of the theater. He moans constantly as a comfort and it does not indicate that he is scared or overstimulated.

She described him as very low functioning and the light of her life. She said that the most exhaustive part of taking care of a special needs child is not the 24-hour care, it is dealing with public misconceptions.

Ironically, March is developmental disabilities awareness month. This issue raises a number of questions about social attitudes regarding developmental disorders and the popular belief that it is the parent’s job to discipline when a child expresses behavior that might seem disruptive, but is actually quite normative for autism.

In fact, in a recent study of special needs families, parents admitted that the main stressor in living with a disabled child was public judgment, followed second by financial burden.

Although Davis is commonly known as a progressive and accepting place, many families experience the dirty looks and snickers as they are out and about with their special needs child.

Arnetta V. has an autistic nine-year-old son. She says snide comments and cold shoulders have just become a part of daily life. She describes, “Just the other day, we were walking up to the Dos Coyotes on Covell. My son was upset because he wanted to go into the PetSmart first.

“When he gets mad, he has learned from his aide worker to sit down and put his head in his arms and count. This is a long, long way from the tantrums he used to throw, where he would punch me and scream. Anyway, I just let him be as I was told to do.

“He was a few feet away from me and I heard a woman who was leaving Dos Coyotes say, ‘What kind of parent lets their kid sit on the filthy floor? Geez, dumbass people really need to stop having kids when they don’t know what the f*** they’re doing.'”

She says she used to confront people, but has just learned to try and let it go because her son can sense the unpleasant energy and feels scared and unsafe.

Her plea to the public is a request for empathy. “Honestly, no one can know what families of autistic children go through until you have lived a day in our shoes. It is a daily battle… So, if you see a child acting out or having an episode, please, please, before you judge just consider that the child may be special needs. It is not always an obvious impairment. Automatically give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe this child is autistic and the mother or father is actually doing overtime parenting instead of being neglectful and careless. People need to learn that it’s not always what meets the eye. I mean, you wouldn’t punish your child if they had an epileptic seizure, so why would I punish my autistic son for having an over sensory episode?”

Hurtful comments and bashing remains a continued problem for special needs individuals and their families. Awareness is the only effective tool in combating the stigma. That is why Amy Ezaki from Autism Awareness Association of Davis encourages more people to get involved and take the pledge to stop the use of the R-word. In the service of awareness, they often hold tabling campaigns on campus to “Spread the Word to End the Word.”

“I [also] encourage people to become more educated about the Autism Spectrum, not just because I love full Autism Awareness Association meetings, but because the more information one has, the better one can understand and interact with individuals with Autism. I would encourage those interested to seek out volunteer opportunities. No matter one’s skill set, there is always a way to help.

“At the Davis Autism Awareness Association bi-monthly meetings, we cover different topics such as the overstimulation. We have also given an overview of the spectrum, welcomed guest speakers, discussed topics such as Autism in adulthood, sensory sensitivities common in individuals with Autism, how to be mindful and considerate of those on the spectrum.

“Because we are an awareness organization, we make sure we provide information about the spectrum at each meeting along with relevant crafts, games, and volunteer and internship opportunities.”

Ezaki cites Team Davis as another excellent resource, a volunteer-led nonprofit that helps build bonds and diminish rifts between developmentally disabled locals and the community. At Team Davis, participants are able to take part in the Special Olympics, art and nutritional classes, and a slew of other fun social, athletic and educational activities.

The annual Autism Awareness Fun Run will take place May 14 at the UC Davis West Quad, and, along with being a lively get together, is another way to spread awareness. While local families are impatiently awaiting this year’s run, some great strides are currently being made across the causeway at the Roseville Theatre Arts Academy.

In conjunction with the UC Davis MIND Institute and Constellation Theater, the Roseville Theater Arts Academy hosts annual performances that feature both autistic and typically developing children.

Founder and UC Davis Pediatrics resident Samantha Auman explains, “Constellation Theater is a free and not for profit group who matches children with autism and other developmental delays with typically developing buddies to rehearse and perform musical theater productions. The goal of our project is to create a safe place for all of the children to grow. We hope to build social skill and self esteem in the children with autism and skills to become advocates in the typically developing children. This is our second year and second show so far but we plan to continue this project for many years to come. “

Auman has witnessed first hand the ways that musical theater has helped children who are both typically developing and those with developmental disorders. With 15 years of experience working with autistic children under her belt, she recognizes that isolation and exclusion are a huge problem in the developmentally disabled community.

Her efforts in bringing people together under the banner of theater helps chip away at barriers. March 4, 2016, marked the second year in a row the theater put on their ‘Dragon The Line’ Performance.

“I think that diversity makes all of us stronger. Each one of my actors, whether they have autism or are typically developing, is a unique individual who brings something different to the cast. Everyone grows because we are all learning from one another…We have many many volunteers that make what we do possible but the project is so important that the work is worth it. I watch as children who were afraid to get on the stage come back to later rehearsals and confidently jump on the stage and say hello to their friends. Children who were afraid to try new things suddenly have the confidence to branch out and join the swim team after participating. I watch the typically developing cast members become fierce and knowledgeable advocates, not only for their buddies but also for other children with autism at school and in the community. I hope that those witnessing this transformation with me also see the benefit of building diverse and supportive communities for our children.”

Auman notes that negative public comments and perceptions that are perpetrated against autistic families probably do not come from a place of malice, but simply represent a lack of understanding. That is why she emphasizes cooperative work and learning at the Constellation Theater. Typically developing children get important exposure to their autistic peers that will stick with them as a form of awareness and compassion. Apart from just happy children, parents rave about the healing work that Samantha Auman’s program facilitates.

“Love love love the culture of love, support and creative joy that has been created. Sam created a new avenue for my son to experience but more importantly, Sam allowed me to see and experience my son through a new, independent, creative and fabulously successful lens. For this, I love this program and the young men that I now believe my boys can become. This opportunity expands horizons and supports shell shocked parents as they find themselves with renewed hope and enhanced dreams because of what this group creates.” -LeNan Bradley, mother of an actor with autism and a typically developing buddy.

For more information about local resources, follow the links below.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. SODA

    Once again, a thoughtful article highlighting a local issue, thank you!

    You mention ‘benefit of the doubt’ early in the article; it reinforces what I posted last week in the  article on black UCD students’ experiences in our town. Thanks for the reminder once again.

    PS: is there a trick to copying and pasting article text to put in a post with quotes on an iPad? Sometimes it works and sometimes not!


  2. Tia Will


    Great article demonstrating the need for more public awareness of children with special needs. I think that greater sensitivity and acceptance are definitely warranted. And having said that, I believe that those two attributes are needed not only from the unaffected public, but also from the parents of children with disabilities which have the ability to disrupt others.

    I also recently saw the movie “The Witch”. Appreciation of this movie, is largely dependent upon the ability to experience the creation of a mood which in turn is dependent upon a sense of foreboding created through the color pallet, stark setting, and perhaps most of all the use of sound….and lack of sound. While I am very supportive of the families of special needs children, I can appreciate the sense of disappointment of having this movie effectively ruined by a sound coming from a child whether that sound is part of their normal responses, or a crying baby, or a toddler or young child talking inappropriately. There are other movies playing currently that would not be subject to such distraction including several children’s movies.

    My request would be two fold. First, that families who do not have children with disabilities be very, very supportive of those who do. Secondly, that families of children with disabilities be considerate of the fact that their child’s sounds and actions may impede the ability of others to concentrate on an activity for which they have also paid with the anticipation of lack of distraction. This does not mean cloistering the child for whom there are many, many appropriate activities but also having an awareness of what activities may not be the most appropriate either for one’s own child, or for others who will be impacted.

    A lot of compassion on both sides would go a long way.

    1. Dave Hart

      Very well said, Tia.  My takeaway from this incident is that there needs to be some kind of respite care for children similar to respite care for family members who care for Alzheimer’s patients.  I can understand the desperation of the parents to get out of the house and engage in normal, adult activities.  Unfortunately for all concerned, the parents chose particularly poorly in this instance.

    2. gentlereader

      There are few “appropriate activities” for children with severe autism, and most of them don’t include other people. This movie could have been the most appropriate for him. Even the mother says “that he was hearing impaired, did not have his hearing aid in and is soothed by the dim lighting of the theater. He moans constantly as a comfort and it does not indicate that he is scared or overstimulated.” When thinking about autistic people, don’t compare their sensory experience to your own. It’s completely different. 

  3. South of Davis

    Jerika wrote that her friend said:

    > “I’m so sorry! That was so horrible. You should have stayed.”

    I’m not a fan of the term “special needs” but my kids have had their share of issues over the years including bad asthma (that I also had as a kid but outgrew) and coughing fits that still freak us out after all these years.

    Should I stay in a theater and tell others to have “empathy” if my kids disrupt them struggling to breathe  or coughing?  I have a lot of “empathy” for people who have kids with problems since few kids in town have spent more time in hospitals than our youngest kid (who fortunately does not have asthma or coughing issues).

    I’m no expert on autism but I would bet that 9 out of 10 doctors who work with autistic kids (most who are sensitive to sounds and light) would recommend that you NOT bring them to a scary R rated movie like the witch.


    1. The Pugilist

      I think there are separate issues here.  The first is that she used bad judgment in bringing a kid to a movie of this sort.

      But second, the way people reacted to it was uncalled for.  Was it really that distracting?  You can always move if that’s the case.  I feel there is not enough sensitivity toward people who are different.  No need that this woman had to be made to feel as she did.

      1. Barack Palin

        Sensitivity is a two way street in this situation.  Where’s the sensitivity towards the people that paid good money to see the movie?  It’s not always easy to get up and move as the theater might have been crowded.  Also if the child was loud enough maybe it didn’t matter where one sat.  Possibly the mother could’ve taken the child out of the theater for a bit to calm the child down.  My wife and I often would bring our babies to movies but when they started to cry one of us would walk out with them until they stopped.

        1. gentlereader

          Unlike typical kids, taking the child out could have been more disruptive. Again, read the article. With the number of autistic kids, it’s important that people understand autism. That’s the point.


    2. gentlereader

      While I don’t know this particular child, what you consider scary is not necessarily scary to an autistic child. And what you consider a nice “kids movie” can scare the heck out of an autistic kid. If you are going to judge the mom for the type of movie you need to understand not only autism, but her child. One autistic student of mine was scared to death of balloons. The “normal” rules don’t apply. The kid may have loved the movie.

    3. gentlereader

      I would bet you’re wrong. Most experts on autism (of which doctors most certainly are not) would recommend appropriate stimulation, which varies child by child. But most kids with autism because stressed with loud noises and busy colors/scenes (Zootopia would be completely INappropriate). Dark lighting and music would probably be much more appropriate and the autistic child probably didn’t understand the concept of “scary witch”–given his mother’s description of his cognitive capacity.


  4. Eric Gelber

    The issue raised by this article is not a simple one. Because of the advocacy efforts of parents and people with disabilities themselves, and the resulting civil rights laws enacted in the last 40-plus years, people with disabilities have become and are becoming more of a presence in schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and other places of community activities. The transition has not always been easy for some to accept. Disability-based discrimination in employment, housing, and education persists, and physical and architectural barriers by businesses remain decades after access standards were implemented. With rights come responsibilities, though. The right to have a service animal in a restaurant, for example, comes with responsibility to ensure that the animal is trained or under control so as to not endanger others. 
    The parents here may have made a poor choice of activity to bring their son to. In California, services exist (e.g., in-home respite services) to enable parents to have time off from caring for their children with developmental disabilities. I can’t speak to the incident related in the article—but it is very apparent that the couple who raised the issue did so inappropriately—in a manner that was humiliating, demeaning, and disruptive. The proper course would have been to quietly notify management immediately and let them assess and handle the situation in an appropriate manner.  
    It is said that “attitudes are the real disability.” Changing attitudes, and increasing sensitivity and awareness is an ongoing effort. Becoming aware of how we use language is part of that effort. In addition to the “R-Word,” how often do we hear or use terms such as “lame,” “crazy,” “psycho,” “midget,” etc. not only to refer to people with disabilities, but in everyday speech, without considering their origin or impact? Seemingly innocuous terms, such as “wheelchair bound” reflect a lack of awareness. 
    The article is food for thought as people with disabilities increasingly become a part of, rather than being apart from, our communities.

    1. gentlereader

      Agreed. Even if the mom made a “poor choice” (and that’s debateable) the way the patrons handled it was far, far worse. You can’t help autism, but you can help being an asshole. As a patron, I would have found them far more distracting, and they should have been asked to leave.

      I often find it funny that people who are upset with a child’s tantrum in a store, often respond with one of their own. A child is a work in progress, but by the time you’re forty, you can reign in the tantrums. Go to the management, ask for a rain check, and know you gave the mom a wonderful gift.


  5. ryankelly

    If the movie were appropriate for children, I would’ve tolerated the disruption of children, regardless of disability.  The movie, Witch, is an R rated horror film, so it would be correct to assume that the disruption of children would not be present.  It would have been a different if they were watching Zootopia or other family movie where viewers should expect that children and their disruptions will be present.


    1. KSmith

      Agree. It’s all about the appropriate context. I have much higher levels of patience/tolerance when I go see a kid or family-oriented movie than I do for something like The Witch.

      Tia above has it right. I saw this film a couple of weeks ago, and it’s all about creating a threatening/ominous atmosphere. Plus, the characters are speaking in 16th-century Early Modern English, so if you’re not able to pay attention, you miss a lot.

      I would have been ticked at any kind of disruption, and I think it boils down to not taking kids below a certain age or behavioral level to anything that’s not appropriately aged. I remember years ago I went to see The Ring (another horror movie–huge horror movie afficianado here), and a family wheeled in a double stroller with two babies *and* an additional toddler (probably 3 or so) in tow.

      When all of the kids caused a disruption and the parents didn’t stop to remove them or handle it in any way, a shouting match ensued about the appropriateness of the movie and the parents’ right to take their kids where they want.

      I really wish theatres would have certain showings of these types of films designated “This showing is for adults only” or something to that effect.

  6. Frankly

    Frankly, (because I am), this mother is ridiculous.  It does not matter if your child is special needs or just a normal little ball of bratty energy.  If the child disrupts the paid-for entertainment experience for the rest of the attendees, then that child should not be brought to the entertainment.

    I have empathy for the parents of any special needs child, but it is not cool to materially impact others with clearly inappropriate involvement of that child.

    But I don’t care if the child is special needs or not.  There are standards of behavior for a movie theater and if any person (child or otherwise) cannot be quiet, then they should not attend.

    This kind of stuff is a big reason why I do not attend movies in Davis… preferring to pay for them and watch them at home.

    1. Alan Miller

      Although Davis is commonly known as a progressive and accepting place, many families experience the dirty looks and snickers as they are out and about with their special needs child.

      Davis Shaming by J.L.H..

      This kind of stuff is a big reason why I do not attend movies in Davis…

      Davis Shaming by Frank Lee.

  7. gentlereader

    I love Davis, but unfortunately Davisites can be among the worst when it comes to special needs kids, as evidenced by some of the comments and the reaction of the “shushers” at the theatre. Appalled, but not surprised, and knew what the comments would be before I read them, sadly. Heaven forbid should a public experience be impacted by “gasp”: the public. Sometimes things don’t go perfectly. I say good for the mom for enjoying the probably rare movie. If it bothered me that much I’d go back a different time, and grant the mom an opportunity to enjoy the movie: an opportunity I can enjoy every day and for her is quite possibly a once a year event (if that). No. big. deal. Shame on Davis.

  8. The Pugilist

    “Unlike typical kids, taking the child out could have been more disruptive. Again, read the article. With the number of autistic kids, it’s important that people understand autism. That’s the point.”

    And people don’t.  That’s demonstrated here.  But it doesn’t stop them from having opinions.  So I’m not sure how best to educate people who think they know everything and aren’t willing to learn.

  9. Barack Palin

    How many other parents that attended the movie made other arrangements for their children because they wouldn’t think of taking them to this inappropriate film or disrupt other attendees with their screaming kids?

      1. Barack Palin

        So don’t I’m sure other parents at times, so guess what, they don’t attend the movie or wait for it to come on Netflix or HBO.  Should everyone’s movie experience be ruined so one parent can bring in their child?

        1. The Pugilist

          I think it’s more about getting out of the house and as gentlereader pointed out, we have no idea what movies the kid might be scared by.  We don’t know.  We are judging other people with only a small set of facts and lots of assumptions.

        2. The Pugilist

          And maybe if people were more aware and understanding, their evening wouldn’t have been ruined.  Their overreaction more likely ruined their movie experience than the kid’s conduct.

        3. gentlereader

          Ummm, parents of typically developing kids more often than not have options for the kids if they want to go to a movie. Granted, once in a while they may not. Once in a while. For a parent of an severely special needs child, they may rarely if EVER have an option for the kids. Ever. For the rest of their lives.

          Barack, somehow “light moaning” became “screaming”  and upsetting two parents become “everyone” in  your mind. Additionally, the child wasn’t “acting up”. The child was doing what autistic kids do. And this could have been a perfectly appropriate activity for an autistic kid, while an afternoon at Chuck E. Cheese is not. I suggest you reread the article and respond to what was actually written and educate yourself a bit on autism.

      2. The Pugilist

        Exactly.  I used to have a lady who worked for me, her son had severe autism.  He had a special school and a specially trained babysitter, but some days, that wasn’t enough and he was too unruly and so she had to stay home and miss work.  Some days, she couldn’t even take a shower.  It’s easy to judge other people’s lives and conduct.

  10. gentlereader

    March 8, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    I have an employee with healthy toddler twins that has the exact same story.

    And some day soon those healthy twin toddlers will be independent enough so that mom can go out to movies every night if she wishes. Not so for the mom of the autistic child, who has a child from whom babysitting resources are severely limited, and for whom she will be caring for the rest of her life. Healthy twins grow up and leave home. Not the non verbal, not ambulatory autistic child in a wheelchair. Mom takes care of him until she (or he) dies. For god’s sake, can she have just one movie? Christ, what is wrong with our city?

  11. Tia Will

    And maybe if people were more aware and understanding, their evening wouldn’t have been ruined.”

    I think that assumptions may be being made on both sides here. While there are some here who may have no experience with autistic children, there may be others, such as myself, who have several years of experience caring for those with profound disabilities including a range of individuals with cerebral palsy and conditions that are now considered to be on the autism spectrum. I have a great deal of empathy for these individuals and their families. And I also know that those who work wth them closely develop the ability to “tune out” the sounds and gestures that they make and so often do not find them particularly disruptive. However, that is frequently not the experience of people who do not have individuals with these conditions in their families and do not work with them. These people often cannot just “tune out the sounds” and go about their business.

    I truly believe that it is best if both those so affected and those not having this experience strive to understand the perspective of the others and each try to be respectful of the needs of the other. That does not appear to have happened here optimally from either side. The mother could certainly have considered taking the child out when it became clear that his sounds were disruptive to others, and the other couple had no business talking to her about her parenting skills and raising the issue of child abuse. This was a situation, at least as portrayed in the article, in which neither side seems to have had the slightest interest in the well being of the other and were only interested in their own priorities.Better options were available to all involved and it is a shame indeed that none were chosen.

    1. gentlereader

      The only other option for the mom is to not go to the movies with her child at all. I, too, have had many years’ experience with autistic kids. I can relate to the point of this article: that people, including those who claim to be compassionate, liberal, and open minded, can be the most judgmental and dismissive of severely impaired kids. I’ve met people who believe it’s worthless and a waste of time/resources for them to go to school. I’ve met people who think they should be euthanized. I’ve met people who insist that any parent that would bring one into the world is a drain on society.

      One of the most offensive things? Hundreds of comments on the AIM/GATE program, and concerns about our “exceptional” kids, but NO comments on the programs for kids that have IQs less than 100 or behavior issues/developmental delays/physical concerns.

      You (all) know all about AIM. Do you know anything about the resources (specifically lack of them) for our kids with IQs less than 100? Or do they even matter? Good grief, it’s ONE movie.


  12. tribeUSA

    I think Tia has struck a good balance here. The mother has to also have the grace to consider how her child may be affecting the viewing experience of the rest of the audience–unfortunately if the child becomes disruptive past some threshold (which may take some judgement to determine), the graceful thing to do is to exit the theatre–this can be a tough thing, I realize. It would be nice, if possible, if the mother could take her child to a showing at a time of day that is likely to be sparsely attended, so if the child does become noisy then fewer people are affected (and they can move off to further seats if they want to).

    I have been in a theatre audience in situations like this, and while I never said anything about the noise, it has been in fact disruptivc, to a lesser or greater degree. Tough situation.

    1. gentlereader

      The “balance” that you expect to be reached means mom never gets to see a movie and your experience is always perfect. I’m disappointed in these responses.

      Do you think the couple that got out of their seats and accused the mom of child abuse were NOT disruptive? To me, and I honestly think most people, that would be what would be the most uncomfortable event of the evening.

      1. hpierce

        That was not at all a “fair comment”…

        Many commenters point out that the ‘offended couple’ should have contacted theater mgt., for them to handle.  Instead, they acted as “vigilantes”… clearly wrong behavior by the couple.

        The person you responded to actually wrote,

        The mother has to also have the grace to consider how her child may be affecting the viewing experience of the rest of the audience–unfortunately if the child becomes disruptive past some threshold (which may take some judgement to determine), the graceful thing to do is to exit the theatre–this can be a tough thing,

        Sounds pretty empathetic to me, particularly as they also offered a mitigating suggestion,

        the mother could take her child to a showing at a time of day that is likely to be sparsely attended, so if the child does become noisy then fewer people are affected (and they can move off to further seats if they want to).

        Sounds like a reasonable approach.  Certainly not deserving of a Ms Manners finger-wagging.  And certainly supportive of the mother and child still attending a screening.

        Your “tone” was ‘out-of-line’ in my opinion.


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