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Thristan “Tum-Tum” Mendoza: A Child Prodigy Marimbist

By Darold Treffert, MD

Thristan Mendoza, or “Tum-Tum” as he is fondly called, is an internationally recognized marimba virtuoso. He was diagnosed with autism at age 2 1/2. With inborn perfect pitch, he learned to play the marimba at age 5. Born in 1989 in Quezon City, Philippines, he is now a 6th grader in the regular curriculum at a traditional school, the O.B. Montessori Center. He also did excel in the Japanese Kumon method of mathematics but had to be withdrawn from Kumon to shift his concentration to other subjects as he was far ahead of his other classmates in his math abilities.

Tum-Tum has earned numerous national and international awards for his prodigious musical ability with the marimba. In 1997 the University of the Philippines, through its President’s Committee on Culture and the Arts, presented him as a gifted child prodigy, the youngest ever featured so far and still the only special child. He is the only two-time grand prize awardee of the McDonalds Philippines Makabata Award and in two different categories. In May of 2000 he received the Millennium Dreamer’s Award given by the Walt Disney Company, McDonalds Corporation and the UNESCO in Orlando. Florida to honor children from 8 to 15 years of age from around the world who have made a positive impact in their respective communities by providing an inspiration to youth. In March, 2001 Very Special Arts presented Tum-Tum with the Rosemary Kennedy International Young Soloist Award and he was invited to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

One news account describes Tum-Tum as having “been born with a pair of sticks in his hands.” Another commented “music paved the way for him to break free of his shell.” The editor of Mother’s Magazine, Ms. Gigi Padilla, described her thoughts thus: “When I first heard Tum Tum Mendoza play his marimba, time stood still. All my thoughts stopped and he just absorbed my attention completely. I marveled at how this child, whose parents were told not to expect anything from him, has now accomplished much more than any of us have.”

Since he could already read and write, Tum-Tum was enrolled at the Philippine Montessori center at age 2 1/2. However, because he was not mingling with the other children but would only play by himself, with no eye contact, and also showed significant hyperactivity, the school suggested a psychological assessment and a diagnosis of autism was made. His mother recalls: “The signs suddenly fell into place. He hated video lights and any form of the shade of red. He could not tolerate the sound of electric drills and food grinders. A loner, he needed a lot of prodding before he would play or interact with others. He did not like looking at the mirror, saying he was too shy to do so. He uttered certain words again and again.” Also noted was a fascination with spinning objects such as electric fans and bicycle wheels.

The same year as he was diagnosed with autism, Tum Tum made his first musical appearance playing three different musical instruments — drums, cymbals and temple block — all at the same time. He later performed as a lead musician with the metalophone as his instrument during a World Youth Day celebration. He then took up the marimba and, after only four months, was a special guest artist of the Philippine Madrigal Singers in a concert on the main stage of the Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. By age 10 he was a veteran of 120 shows with intrumentalist/composers, percussion virtuosos and harpists from around the world.

At the O.B. Montessori Center in the Philippines, Tum Tum is a consistent honor student. Psychological testing shows a Verbal IQ in the average (100-110) range with performance IQ in the high average to Superior range (118-131). This discrepancy between verbal and performance scores shows best abilities on tasks that do not rely on verbal elaboration of concepts or percepts. Academic Achievement for highly structured tasks such as spelling and math range from the Junior to Senior High School level; reading skills are at about grade level. Language deficits in terms of language processing remain. Social skills are the main deficit. The most recent evaluation applies a diagnosis of Autistic Disorder.

Tum-Tum is looking forward to the release of his first CD/cassette album soon. Proceeds from the album will be donated to a special educational fund of the Autism Society of the Philippines for the benefit of indigent families who cannot afford educational intervention and other therapies for their special children. Using his remarkable musical talent, Tum-Tum, with the effort, support and encouragement of his dedicated, and grateful family, has done much to raise awareness about autism in the Philippines, and now internationally, donating countless hours to fund raising activities for the Autism Society of the Philippines and other organizations for the handicapped.

As with other prodigious savants, Tum-Tum’s extraordinary ability has served as a conduit toward normalization for him through the unique, flexible and innovative educational approach used in conjunction with the other therapies provided him as well. There have been continuous gains in language and social skills. Meanwhile his special musical gifts have not diminished. They continue to grow and excel. There has been no trade off of special skills for gains in other areas of daily functioning. Instead, both have prospered.

Thristan Mendoza’s remarkable progress raises important questions that other prodigious savants present as well. What is the best educational approach for these special persons? Should the artificial distinction be maintained, as it is in some programs, between the “gifted and talented” non-disabled children and the “disabled gifted,” such as the savant? Is it possible, and what benefits accrue, to both specially gifted groups when they are combined, rather than separated, in the classroom setting? Tum Tum is a sparkling example of the benefits of “mainstreaming” him, as it were, in a group of other gifted and talented children without artificially separating the disabled from the non-disabled. His special musical talent cuts across and through any such ‘disability’ boundaries to the benefit not only of Tum Tum, but to the benefit of his classmates and the rest of us as well. Tum Tum’s experience and growth challenges us to look closely at these vital educational questions for the savant without the typical stereotypes, classifications and categories that have been too arbitrary, too limiting and too confining. That reevaluation is underway in a number of centers and locales.

Meanwhile Tum Tum Mendoza shares his remarkable musical gift with the whole world, literally, around him. Additional information about Tum Tum is available through his parents, Belina and Victor Mendoza, who can be contacted at vlm143@i-manila.com.ph.


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For more information, please contact:
Darold A. Treffert, MD
St. Agnes Hospital, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison
Personal website: www.daroldtreffert.com
E-mail: daroldt@charter.net