Do focused interests support word learning? A study with autistic and nonautistic children

S. Arunachalam, A. Steele, T. Pelletier, R. Luyster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although focused interests are often associated with a diagnosis of autism, they are common in nonautistic individuals as well. Previous studies have explored how these interests impact cognitive, social, and language development. While some research has suggested that strong interests can detract from learning (particularly for autistic children), newer research has indicated that they can be advantageous. In this pre-registered study, we asked whether focused interests support word learning in 44 autistic children and a vocabulary-matched sample of 44 nonautistic children (mean ages 58 and 34 months respectively). In a word-learning task administered over Zoom, children were exposed to an action labeled by a novel word. The action was either depicted by their focused interest or by a neutral image; stimuli were personalized for each child. At test, they were asked to identify the referent of the novel word, and their eye gaze was evaluated as a measure of learning. The preregistered analyses revealed an effect of focused interests, and post-hoc analyses clarified that autistic children learned the novel word in both the focused interest and neutral conditions, while nonautistic children only showed evidence of learning in the neutral condition. These results suggest that focused interests are not disruptive for vocabulary learning in autism, and thus they could be utilized in programming that supports early language learning in this population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)955-971
Number of pages17
JournalAutism Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2024


  • autism
  • interests
  • language
  • verbs
  • word learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Genetics(clinical)


Dive into the research topics of 'Do focused interests support word learning? A study with autistic and nonautistic children'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this