School district personnel insist that my child should be on Ritalin. Are they allowed to say this?

Although we have freedom of speech in this country (e.g. your neighbor or friend could express whatever opinion they wanted to), those who are operating within the confines of their chosen profession (e.g. educators talking to parents) should be very careful about practicing medicine and/or psychology without a license. It is the job of a licensed physician to prescribe medication, and licensed psychologists are permitted to discuss the appropriateness of a prescribed medication or to suggest a medication to the physician. Licensed psychologists are also permitted to discuss medication with patients.  Although properly trained licensed psychologists have gained prescription privileges in New Mexico and Louisiana, in California it is currently illegal for anyone other than a physician to actually prescribe medication (See the Board of Psychology’s “Statement on Medication” for more information).

In the unlikely event that the “school district personnel” in question was either a licensed physician or licensed psychologist, they would then be within their rights to discuss medication with you (This discussion would, of course, be in the private confines of a formal doctor-patient meeting). Otherwise the “school district personnel” are out of bounds.

Additionally, as of 2004, IDEA explicitly prohibits school personnel from requiring that a child obtain a prescription as a condition of attending school or receiving special education services. It’s unbelievable that additional legal code had to be written regarding this, as it is already illegal to practice medicine without a license!

I have a child with autism, who was recently tested by the school. I am currently trying to find an advocate close to my area because I want my district to provide ABA. ABA was recommended by my local parent group.  I am in _____.  I was hoping that you might be able to refer me to someone.

Although an “advocate” may be helpful in some cases to help guide you through the IEP process, I don’t often recommend people who are “only” advocates because having a (sometimes marginal) knowledge of the IEP process is not usually enough to obtain what may be appropriate for your child. For example, you will notice that my website banner says “child advocate.” My usage of this term means that, although I have much more than a peripheral knowledge of the IEP process, my main impetus is the best results for the child.  I “advocate” in the context of being a psychologist who actually assessed and diagnosed that particular child. Another reason that I don’t often recommend “advocates” who are not either attorneys or psychologists is that anyone can claim the title “advocate,” and therefore the consumer is not protected by any kind of licensing board (I make exceptions for experienced parents who will help you through the process at no/minimal charge, as well as the folks who work through the Area Boards).  Further, when I worked in the educational system, I was sometimes exposed to “advocates” who appeared to be interested in something other than the best interests of the child and unduly prolonged the process (while the parents were paying them by the hour). Filibustering is not the best approach while your child is languishing in educational limbo.

When there are legal entanglements around an IEP, it may be a better choice to hire an attorney than an “advocate.”  Even then, I think it is critical for the attorney to obtain an assessment and diagnosis from a licensed psychologist before embarking on recommendations.  Often people mistakenly believe that “more is better” and that by obtaining a laundry list of services from the school district they have “won.” Although sometimes the complexity of a child’s problems warrants a “laundry list,” often it is better to target one or two issues at a time, and obtain the most beneficial services.  Remediation should not be a willy-nilly process. Like adults, children’s processing capacities are not limitless. Funds for special education services are not limitless either. It is entirely feasible, even given these limitations, that the child “wins.”

There is an unfortunate trend for some support groups for parents of children with autism to bypass the professionals and make diagnostic recommendations that may or not be in the best interest of the child (40 hrs/wk. of ABA, for example).  These groups are without a doubt well meaning, but they cannot purport to have the knowledge and training of an M.D. or Ph.D.  Although ABA may be valuable for some children, it is not always the best (and it is certainly not the only) option.  Companies have sprung up virtually overnight who provide ABA services, and there is a lot of money in it. Sometimes the “credentials” of those working at these companies are shaky at best. Perhaps it is my training as a scientist that makes me naturally suspect of vendors who make claims about expensive treatments to desperate parents. All this to say that it is best to obtain advice about treatment from an unbiased professional, preferably the diagnosing doctor.

If you disagree with your school district’s assessment, you can obtain an independent educational evaluation (IEE; there is information about IEEs above). If you agree with their evaluation but not with their recommendations, it may still be valuable to obtain a private assessment with an emphasis on recommendations (I’m attaching the link to your county’s psychological association). Make sure the doctor has experience with autism and with special education.  S/he should then be able to help you decide if hiring an attorney or if further negotiations without an attorney would be best in your case.

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Further Reading: What is the difference between a Psychologist, a Neuropsychologist, a Licensed Educational “Psychologist,” and a School “Psychologist?”
The What & Why of Psychological Assessment
Neuropsychology questions
Special education questions 
 What Is Psychotherapy?