074The Autism class at Riverview East Academy is using some unique tools for change in the classroom. The tools are Boomwhackers, drums, shakers, triangles and a guitar, in music sessions led by board certified music therapist Shelly Zeiser.  The class combines Shirley Dicks’ K-3 classroom and Misty Griffiths’ 3-5 Autism classes into one big group that loves making music together.  The school has had an active music therapy program in this Autism classroom for one year.

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Shirley Dicks, Shelly Zeiser and Misty Griffiths outside the Autism classroom at Riverview East Academy.

“We love having this music therapy program,” said Misty Griffiths, Intervention specialist.   “Our school did not previously have a strong music program, especially one designed for our Autism population.”  The students love the music, she says, and they get so excited when it’s time for music circle.


Music has helped these students increase eye contact, respond to greetings and improve following directions. “These are improvements that are extending beyond our classroom,” Griffiths said.  “I notice a difference when our students walk down the hall.  They wave, say hello, and have many more socially appropriate behaviors. Staff at the school has noticed it too.”  Social basics can be challenging for students with autism, Griffiths said, and music is helping them master these things so they can proceed on to learning more complex social behaviors.

Remarkable Change057

Board certified music therapist Shelly Zeiser (MT-BC) has been working with the students in Ms. Griffiths’ classroom for just over one year. She says the change has been “remarkable”.  “It took one of the students 10 months to make eye contact with me,” she said.  “But now he looks me in the eye and sings hello every session.” Another student took a full semester before he said hello, and another wouldn’t stay for the whole session.  After a year of music therapy in the classroom, the students are smiling, taking turns and engaging with each other in song.

068Zeiser says these methods work for a couple of key reasons. First, music is familiar. Students can work on skills that might otherwise be difficult or seem threatening, in a way that’s fun and engaging.  Repetition also plays a role.  Zeiser and Griffiths work together at the beginning of the semester to determine which social skills they will target for improvement.  Zeiser then designs a music therapy-based curriculum that she implements in a weekly session.  But what make the program really work is repetition.  Griffiths repeats these music interventions up to 5 times each classroom day.  The consistency that Zeiser, Dicks and Griffiths have been able to create, working together as a team, has led to measurable improvements in the classroom.