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Annette Karmiloff-Smith (1938–2016) was a professorial research fellow at the Developmental Neurocognition Lab at Birkbeck, University of London. She was an expert in developmental disorders, with a particular interest in Williams syndrome.

Her work has been hugely influential in deepening our understanding of developmental disorders. Particularly, she has criticized[1] approaches that take a modality-specific approach to developmental disorders - approaches that state, for example, that autism arises because of a failure of the "theory of mind" module[2], or that children with specific language impairment lack a genetically determined "language module".[3]

Karmiloff-Smith has argued[1] that these approaches assume a "mosaic-like" approach to cognitive development - according to which different systems within the brain develop separately from each other, based purely on information coded in the genes. The real picture of development is, she argues, much more complicated (see Interactive Specialization). Development comes about as a result of back-propagating interactions between gene, brain, behavior, and the environment[4]; "modules" (those parts of the brain that are, for example, specialized at processing language) appear relatively late in development.[5] Since developmental disorders arise from problems during development (as opposed to damage to a mature system) it follows that we should expect to find performance deficits that are not linked to one particular domain, but rather spread across a whole range of different performance impairments.

Karmiloff-Smith has supported her theories by her research work into Williams syndrome. This rare syndrome was originally thought to manifest itself as abnormally low IQ, accompanied by "normal" ability to process social cues. In a series of papers (eg [6]), Karmiloff-Smith and colleagues have discovered that impairments in Williams syndrome are far more widespread than had previously been appreciated. Her theories have been further supported by work in other fields. For example, autistic children have been found to be impaired not just at Theory of Mind but also at a variety of tasks including motion perception, visual search and multi-tasking (eg [7]), a finding that domain-specific theories find it hard to account for.

Karmiloff-Smith has authored a number of books and academic articles, most notably Beyond Modularity[5] in 1992 and Rethinking Innateness[8] with Jeffrey Elman, Mark Johnson, Elizabeth Bates, Domenico Parisi, and Kim Plunkett in 1996.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Karmiloff-Smith A. (1998). Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2 (10): 389–398.
  2. Williams J.H.G., Whiten A., Suddendorf T., Perrett D.I. (2001). Imitation, mirror neurons and autism. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 25 (4): 287–295.
  3. Rice M.L., Wexler K. (1996). Toward tense as a clinical marker of specific language impairment in English-speaking children. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 39 (6): 1239–1257.
  4. Gottlieb, G., Lickliter, R. (2007). FProbabilistic epigenesis. Developmental Science 10 (1): 1–11.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Karmiloff-Smith, Annette (1996). Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  6. Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2007). Williams syndrome.. Curr Biol. 17 (24): R1035–6.
  7. Elsabbagh M., Johnson M.H. (2007). Infancy and autism: progress, prospects, and challenges. Progress in Brain Research 164: 355–383.
  8. Elman et al., Jeffrey (1996). Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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