Therapist Uses Music to Communicate with Students with Emotional, Intellectual Disabilities

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November 6, 2020 by HCDE Communications

Music is the voice box in Omar Reyna’s life.  The musician uses seven years of guitar and piano instruction to his advantage as a school-based music therapist, a licensed health professional.

He truly identifies with his students at Academic and Behavior School East because he has experienced their struggles. ABS East is a school for children with intellectual and emotional disabilities which serves area school districts through Harris County Department of Education.

At age 7, he barely spoke but turned to music to transpose his emotions.  Diagnosed on the autism spectrum, he experienced pervasive development disorder, a delay in development of socialization and communication skills. Through support from his mother, he was mainstreamed into a regular classroom by third grade.

Reyna uses his skills in musical performance, lessons, songwriting, and listening as part of an integrative course of therapy in the school setting to improve children’s social, emotional, physical and/or cognitive abilities. A team of nine music therapists work with 150 physical and occupational therapists to serve children through Harris County Department of Education’s School-Based Therapy Services. They provide 54 percent of school-based therapy in the county to area school districts.

At ABS East, Reyna works with elementary-aged, life skills students to gain beneficial social skills, focusing on one social skill each week.

This week that skill is dealing with anger, and Reyna is working with Blake and John, two fourth graders.

“You’re feeling upset?” Reyna asks the boys. “Show it to me through your playing.”

The students work their emotions on tambourine and drums, and Reyna orchestrates a pause.

The music therapist covers other coping devices for dealing with anger, sharing the tools and asking questions. Count to 10 and take a break. Tell an adult about your problem. Talk it out. What else?

“My job is to try to meet them in the middle and validate their feelings, because we don’t want those feelings to lead to a negative trajectory,” Reyna said.

Since a large sector of students at ABS East is autistic, Reyna will work on social skills like personal greetings or creating personal space.

“Having music as a motivator not only builds rapport but also keeps students more engaged so that I may instill positive ideas,” he said.

Music therapists also use elements like cadence, lyrics and melody to also solicit physical and speech outcomes with students.

For Reyna, the idea to become a music therapist clicked at a college fair. He was envisioning becoming a pianist or mariachi guitar player. Then he heard the story about how music therapy helped trauma injury patient Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

After five years at Sam Houston State, Reyna secured an internship with HCDE’s School-Based Therapy Services and was later offered a job.

ABS East Principal Dr. Donna Trevino-Jones says her school has used music therapy for two years. She witnessed the benefits firsthand.

Recalling a student who was nonverbal, she witnessed him come out of his shell and begin communicating through music therapy.

“For our students to be able to find a different outlet to express themselves is very important,” Trevino-Jones said.  “Once I saw what music therapy could do for the students, I thought: ‘We need more of that.’”

Reyna now visits ABS East for two hours, five days a week. Deeper emotional connections are made as visits become daily versus weekly.

“It has been a gamechanger for students to be able to use their words to express their feelings rather than their actions,” Trevino-Jones said.

For Reyna, the music travels with him long after he closes his guitar case and packs up his small, percussion instruments. He carries it forward to motivate himself to work out or relax when he’s stressed out.

He knows the music will speak to his students as well.

“Music can break through barriers, and it’s universal,” he said. “Finding what drives someone music-wise can be very powerful.”

For information about HCDE’s School-Based Therapy Services or schools for children with special needs, go to





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