Autism is still one of the least talked-about issues in terms of mental health for it was often dismissed as a disease. It is rather a spectrum disorder. While most people say that autism may hinder a person from pursuing his craft, it was not the same case for multi-awarded marimba prodigy Thristan Mendoza, more known as Tum-Tum.
“Some of the teachers and personnel from my first school, Philippine Montessori Center, have discovered that I have not, I didn’t want to join my classmates in their ‘together activities,’” Tum-Tum. According to Tum-Tum, his teachers, along with some school personnel, often had to deal with how he interacted with his classmates during group activities.
In grade school, Tum-Tum would rather sit in a corner and read books by himself. He played with school materials all by himself while his classmates socialized with one another. He also did not seem to look in the eye of the person he was conversing with.
“They told my parents I had autism. So, my mom looked for a therapist who could help me improve my interaction skills and help me learn how to face the real world and do ‘together things’ with other people, whether in just plain speech or during play time,” Tum-Tum narrated.
Yet, Tum-tum was still bullied in school even as he worked harder, motivated to do better.
“I treated everything like competition. I always wanted to be the first to greet the teachers and say goodbye to them, or to finish my work and submit it first. I always wanted to get the highest grade in my class,” Tum-Tum said. He would usually give himself a pat on the back whenever he aced his school requirements.
In high school at Reedley International School, Tum-Tum was not bullied anymore. But there were still habits that he had to outgrow to be able to communicate with people better.
“There were some habits I did, like charging at some people like a bull,” he narrated. “Although during my last year, I had to learn that I cannot do that all the time.”
Despite his condition, Tum-Tum pursued his career as a musician. He first experienced playing musical instruments when he was five years old. “I was interested in the marimba because when I saw some xylophones in children’s books and even toy xylophones, they have those with colored keys,” Tum-Tum narrated. According to Tum-Tum, the marimba had its most potential for him to play several musical pieces for it is a keyboard instrument.
Tum-Tum initially got jealous of his siblings because while he was studying the instrument, his siblings were playing with each other. “But in the long run, I learned that I had to make a passion out of it and I’ll be able to use it with all my skills,” Tum-Tum realized.
It was in the year 2013 when Tum-Tum was encouraged to join the National Music Competition for Young Artists, his first motivation was to make his parents buy him a Nintendo Wii he had always been dreaming of.
“During the semifinals, my mom once told me that, ‘If you don’t qualify for the finals, we won’t give you a Wii,’” Tum-Tum narrated.
One of his mentors during the competition was his percussion professor Leo Roque who did not only guide Tum-Tum in polishing his pieces, but also in enjoying the entire performance. He was even advised to play the competition piece as if the composer were still alive.
“Since I played well, it’s just a sign that autism should not stop you from reaching your goals and achieving those dreams that you really want,” Tum-Tum said. While his desire to make his parents buy him the Nintendo Wii he always wanted, he thought that no matter how small his motivation was, it could be something bigger for him to go beyond what he can do. “But I still have to rely on the power of God and keep the faith that I will be able to steer me into the prize,” Tum-Tum added. As a Born-Again Christian, he always asked for God’s guidance every time he performed on the marimba.
“I have been performing in the first to the fifth World Autism Awareness Day concerts held in selected SM malls that were held every April,” Tum-Tum said. As a musician, he was able to raise people’s awareness on autism through events like this. However, as a classically trained marimbist, there was one instance when people seemed disinterested with his performance. “That caused me to make plans to arrange mainstream music for solo marimba.”
“Every time I hear music, sometimes when I hear specific tunes, I can imagine different things and that helped me make unique associations as I heard different tunes,” Tum-Tum said. Associations to various things is how music mattered to him. For instance, every time he heard the music used in his high school’s cheer dance intramurals, he would imagine himself in outer space.
While he used to love listening to mainstream genres like pop and rock during his high school years, his favorite genre is Eurodance, which made him want to jam and dance to it. “I buy CD’s for that musical style, and save those tracks into my online music streaming libraries,” Tum-Tum said.
“Every time you feel mocked, don’t let it bring you down,” Tum-Tum advised. Despite having autism, Tum-Tum has made a mark in marimba playing, not only in the Philippines, but also in other countries like in the United States and Brunei. “Keep the faith and always keep on developing your passion for it and in that way, you’ll be able to treat it like fun. You have fun with it and eventually, you’ll become really successful in the craft that you are given,” Tum-Tum added. With great faith in God and motivation, one can be successful despite any condition he may have.