My husband, A, finished reading God Emperor of Dune, the fourth book in the original series, for the millionth time while we were away. So I spent a disproportionate amount of our vacation staring at the cover, a lurid display full of gaudy reds and orange swirls that wouldn’t be out of place in a velvet painting, topped with a bunch of little guys in white one-pieces similar to the spandex suits worn by the nihilists in The Big Lebowski,  and a giant, black worm with a tortured and bloody-looking dude’s head carved out of the top, sort of like the most terrifying watermelon sculpture possible.

“So, he really turns into a sandworm?” I kept asking, like my repetitive interrogation would somehow make all of that nonsense disappear.

“Yes. Leto Atreides, Paul’s son, becomes a sandworm,” he would answer with remarkable patience.

“Why?”

“Because [insert incredibly detailed spiel about some kind of future vision that made Leto realize that he needed to make the ultimate sacrifice and turn into a sandworm to govern Arrakis for the next few hundred years that I was only half listening to].”

“Where’s Alia?”

“She’s dead. This is hundreds of years in the future.”

“So, it’s just a whole book about a sandworm?”

“Well, he has a legion of feisty warrior women who run the planet with him.”

“How does he talk to them?”

“He still has a human head. [insert explanation about Leto’s slow metamorphosis and how he thinks that his human head will disappear and then he’ll go off into the desert and die because I’m pretty sure that’s the Atreides solution to everything].”

“This book is dumb.”

Seriously, what the hell?

I picked up the weighty tome a few times when he was done with it, scanning the occasional page to get some sense of this clearly drug-fueled orgy of overly serious thoughts about worms and sand, but all I came up with was a passage in which Leto explains to the seven millionth incarnation of Duncan Idaho that he still feels his genitals, even though they’ve been gone for centuries.

And I guess it’s an, um… admirable thing that someone in the history of the human race has taken some time to ponder the internal and external life of human/sandworm hybrids and whether or not they’d have phantom genital syndrome, but I just don’t have any patience for that kind of thing. That’s just not my Dune.

My Dune was David Lynch’s Dune. Well, at least partially so. You see, my thing with Dune was particularly narrow in its focus, even for an Asperger’s special interest.

My Dune, as understood and explained by my six-year-old self, was as follows:

There’s this planet with sand and spice and the people eat the spice and they get blue eyes. And there’s this orange thing floating in space because it ate too much spice. And there’s this guy, and the scary woman makes him stick his hand in a box and it really hurts but he can’t take his hand out or he dies but he doesn’t take his hand out and that’s a good thing. And then the guy is on the planet and he knows how to put the special desert suit on even though no one ever showed him! And there’s a little girl who’s really scary and smart and a fat guy with pimples who floats.

For some reason, the suit part was the most important part. To my younger self, Dune was basically a movie about Captain Picard being really impressed by the way that Agent Cooper wore a skintight suit.

As far as special interests go, Dune was not exactly a great love affair. It didn’t last for years on end. I never dragged my parents to lectures by Frank Herbert. I was too young to really attempt reading the books, anyway. I didn’t memorize every possible fact about it.  But my Dork Passenger’s brief flirtation with Dune sticks out in my mind for a couple of reasons. First of all, I love being able to brag that I’ve been Lynch fan since I was six years old. Secondly, it marks the first time I was really aware that my special interests weren’t considered cute anymore.

I discovered Dune when I was in kindergarten. I distinctly remember walking into my living room, seeing a giant orange thing floating through space on TV, and thinking that it was the best thing I’d ever witnessed.

I’m not entirely sure why parents let me watch it, and my mother can’t remember the details, although she doesn’t seem to think that it was a big deal. I have a different theory, though.

Despite my mother’s lack of concern in retrospect, my parents were at least somewhat careful about what they let me watch, on account of the fact that I was quite skilled at having nightmares based on innocuous commercials and interstitial programs. They probably rented it with every intention of watching after I went to sleep. But, like many people on the spectrum, I had (and still have, to a certain extent) erratic sleeping habits and, at some point, Mom and Dad probably got so exhausted and desperate to actually watch the movie before they had to return it to the local Videoflixx that they just put the damn thing on. Then I walked into the room. And really, once your kid has seen and become instantly obsessed with a giant orange vagina-faced creature, the damage has pretty much already been done. So they gave in and let their weird and wired kid stick around.

I didn’t really follow the whole movie. Even smart six-year-olds with an autistic sense of focus aren’t really ready for a sci-fi epic in its entirety. And, to be fair, few adults not named David Lynch and maybe not even David Lynch actually knew what the fuck was going on in that thing. But the parts that I did follow and remember became my favourite movie of all time.

I started walking around the house, imagining, in a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that I was Alia, the disturbing, too-adult girl who freaked out the grown-ups. I found a Dune colouring book deeply discounted at the local Bi-Way (there couldn’t have been much of a market for such a thing), carefully selected a burnt sienna crayon from my arsenal of seventy-two colours and wore it down to a nub as I bathed every page in the sandy tones of Arrakis. Then I took out a blue crayon and did everyone’s eyes. I discovered that my school’s library had a copy of the original Dune book, but my excitement was short-lived when I also discovered that kindergarten students weren’t allowed to borrow from the big kids’ section just yet.

Vagina Face! In colouring book form!

I also started telling people about it.

My early experiences with sharing my special interests were uniformly positive. It’s cute when a kid shows a fascination with dinosaurs and adults loved to indulge me during that phase. Asking me to talk about dinosaurs was an adorable party trick. And while the Titanic might have been considered a little more morbid, the ship’s discovery was such a big deal in the mid-eighties that most people in the general population were at least a little charmed by my encyclopedic knowledge of the topic and my unbridled excitement for all things White Star Line. People at Titanic society meetings practically fawned over me. Even Dr. Robert Ballard himself seemed to like me well enough when I met him after a lecture in Toronto.

But there’s nothing cute about a kid who loves one of the most notoriously controversial and (unfairly) reviled  sci-fi flicks of all time. In fact, the only thing more creepy and unpleasant than Dune itself, for most people,  is listening to a child talk about it.

My ridiculously narrow focus didn’t help matters, either. I mean, I have memories of telling people about the suit scene, with no other context or explanation. Just “In Dune, there’s a guy who is new on the desert planet, and he knows how to put the special desert suit on without anyone having to tell him. And the planet guy is really impressed!” What the hell do you say to that?

My parents, as always, were wonderfully patient and supportive of my latest all-encompassing fixation. Everyone else was, understandably, less so.

Play Barbies? No thanks, I want to talk about sandworms.

I don’t really blame anyone for their reactions to me. You probably shouldn’t encourage a child’s love of Dune, and the colouring book is now, rightfully, considered a horrible, mind-warping idea. But those reactions really did a number on me.

At least some people probably assumed that I was just a spoiled, overindulged child who needed to be taken down a peg or two and taught that she wasn’t a precious snowflake with the best, most fascinating interests ever. Maybe they were right. But maybe not. When I look back on a lot of the clashes that I had with adults who were not immediately related to me during my formative years, it feels more like everyone was so worried about me developing an ego because of my intelligence that they never stopped to determine if I had any self-esteem to begin with.

I didn’t feel special or precious. I certainly didn’t feel entitled to the attention. I liked it, though. Talking to adults about the things that I loved were some of the most positive social experiences of my young life and yes, I wanted more of that.

I had a lot of social blind spots as a child, but I have always been extremely aware of when I’ve done something truly undesirable or when I’ve disappointed someone. And I felt that very acutely when I tried to tell people about my new favourite movie.

In the end, it wasn’t Dune – or even my fucking twisted colouring book– that warped my young mind and destroyed a little piece of my innocence; it was the repercussions of loving Dune that did. It was one of the first events that made me realize that I was different, that there was something odd and off-putting about the things that I loved and that people weren’t really interested in them, or in me talking about them.

It wasn’t enough to stop me completely, and the whole Titanic obsession continued its course unabated until we hit the iceberg of adolescence, but there was something different about my special interests after that. They became more muted in some ways. I knew that I had to be careful about what I did with them,  what I said about them and who I said those things to, that I had to hold my interests close to me like any other shameful secret. The innocence and the pure, unbridled excitement were gone.

Fear of rejection became my imagination killer.

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People with Asperger’s Syndrome really know our shit. Granted, that shit is most likely narrowly focussed and potentially obscure, but we really, really know our obsessive, particular and esoteric shit.

The well-researched and expertly regurgitated favourite subjects of a person with AS are generally referred to as “special interests,” but that’s a rather flaccid, ineffectual term for what actually goes on in my brain when I’m in the throes of such excitable nerdity.

As a fan of both Dexter and cheesy puns, I’ve taken to calling it my “Dork Passenger.” I imagine that the underlying impulses, the all-consuming need is quite similar in both of our cases. They only real difference is in our respective Passengers’ desires. While Dexter’s sibilant mental companion unfurls its wings and demands blood and death, mine furiously flaps its hands and squeals all sorts of constructive suggestions into my ear. Suggestions like “We need to learn more about DSV Alvin, the research submersible that our hero Dr. Robert Ballard was in when he explored the Titanic the second time!” or “Mom definitely wants to hear more about the destructive but intoxicating relationship between Beecher and Keller and how it was so painfully miswritten in season six!” or even “Yes! We definitely need to explain the finer points of the Eastern European roots of plyometrics to this guy we just met at the bar, because this is obviously an excellent party topic!!!”

The Dork Passenger can show up at any time and turn what might otherwise be a productive hobby or interest enjoyed with a sense of perspective and respect for the other facets of a well-balanced life and turns it a far more unwieldy beast. No amount of knowledge is ever good enough for The Dork Passenger. No amount of time is ever long enough to dedicate to its latest fixation.

The Dork Passenger can stay fixed on the same target for years, or it can leave as suddenly as it arrived. I’ll just wake up one morning, and find that the urgency and the magic aren’t really there anymore. Sometimes a lingering fondness for the object of obsession remains, much like normals might feel for a long lost love that was never meant to be, but the details never last. I keep a Titanic charm on a necklace these days, but I had to turn to Wikipedia for all of that stuff about Alvin mentioned above. I’d gotten Alvin mixed up with Jason Jr. which would have been a cardinal sin up to twenty years ago.

Over the course of my life, The Dork Passenger has steered me toward a bizarre hodgepodge of Most Important Things Ever, including dinosaurs (though, in my experience, saying an Aspie went through a dinosaur phase is like saying that a classic rock fan went through a Stones phase), the ruins of Pompei, JRR Tolkien, Dune, Canadian indie music, Big Star, a couple of foreign filmmakers, David Cronenberg and Dead Ringers, pro-wrestling, slash fanfiction and pro-wrestling slash fanfiction.

The way in which I explore these things has evolved over the years. What began as a strictly qualitative exercise involving strict numbers and facts has grown into more of an interest in qualitative observations. When I was at the height of Titanic-mania, I was all about memorizing things like the names of passengers, the song that was playing when the ship sunk and the time and date of the iceberg hit. When I was in the midst of my latest spell, this time with the HBO series OZ (yes, the girl who loved one of the most devastating losses of human life on the high seas went on to adore a TV show in which machiavellian monsters stick all sorts weapons and body parts into each other- there’s a sunny Asperger success story for you) I paid far more attention to plot lines, structure and characterization than I did to who directed a particular episode.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the giddy thrill of it all. It’s like a scholarly sugar high without the crash. Special interests get a bit of a bad wrap in autism literature, but I can honestly say they’re one of the two things I genuinely love about my disorder (my fascinating rain mannish ability to throw almost the exact same punch 20 times in a row being the other).

I won’t deny that the Dork Passenger has caused the occasional issue over the years, but they’ve been comparatively minor to any other AS-related drama I’ve navigated. Most of the problems I can recall off the top of my head are pretty amusing in retrospect. I’ve pulled some really weird shit over the years in the name of my favourite things, and I stand by almost every single stunt.

My only complaint with the whole phenomenon is that it has seriously amped up the intensity of my impostor syndrome. It’s almost impossible for me to understand what a normal sense of knowledge and expertise is supposed to feel like now. When you become an authoritative expert on anything while you’re still in kindergarten, everything after that is bound to feel a little half-assed.