Ten-year-old Santino Stagliano was, up until a few weeks ago, sad and felt secluded because he knew he couldn't do the same things as other kids his age. That is, until his mother, Lisa Stagliano, gave her son a blank T-shirt and encouraged him to doodle.
Santino was diagnosed with autism at age five. Being nonverbal for most of his life, he had always used art as a form of expression. One day in his family's South Philadelphia home, he drew a mother and baby dragon, and gave that to his mom. For the first time in five years, his mother knew just what Santino was trying to say.
Proud of her son and his drawing, on April 14, Lisa posted a photo to Facebook of Santino working on his dragon shirt. The following day, Lisa logged back into the social media site to find nine requests from people wanting their own “Santino dragon shirts."
When Santino saw the requests, Lisa said it was a turning point for her son; he felt understood by the world.
A little over a month later, he’s hand-drawn 650 T-shirts and had over 1,000 orders. Santino and his family has turned his efforts into a fully-functioning non-profit organization that supports autism awareness, selling each shirt for $5 and donating half the proceeds to The Center for Autism, the facility that he now spends one day a week at.
Santino is attracted to dragons for their “unique ability to fly and breathe fire.” To this family, the dragon is symbolic for being different, just like him.
“Because of acceptance and him feeling like he belongs in a world that he didn’t understand before, he has come alive and I no longer as a mother have to guess what he’s feeling or thinking,” Lisa told TODAY.com. “He’s expressing it. For any autistic parent, that’s a miracle.”
The drawings are so important to Santino because they're connected to his emotions. It’s given his parents a way of communicating with their child. If he’s feeling angry, he’ll draw a dragon that reflects that.
“For children that might have problems communicating verbally how they’re feeling or thinking— art can be a nice way to represent those things without having to use words,” said Bethany Barney, Santino’s outpatient therapist at The Center For Autism.
And for Santino's parents, their boy who was once too scared to interact with other people; who would find himself curled underneath a table at a social gathering to escape the noise of his surroundings now goes to customers’ homes to personally deliver their T-shirt. In the design process, he’ll also offer advice as to what colors may look best.
“Through the whole thing, we see miracles— in a little boy who didn’t like clouds, people and empathy, something started to change,” Lisa said.
Recently, the family captured an emotional moment — when a woman grabbed the boy to give him a hug, he hugged back and smiled.
"He’s bringing hope to many autistic families because their children don’t speak yet,” Lisa said of other families learning to communicate with an autistic child.
And Santino has started to look at his life with a more positive outlook.
“It’s pretty cool to be autistic, it’s pretty different,” Santino has told his mother.
His first donation to The Center for Autism was for $2,500, which became more than a family matter when local Podiatrist, Michael A. Troiano matched dollar-for-dollar what Santino raised in his first batch of hand-drawn shirts.
The change in the Stagliano’s son has brought Lisa to tears. When the City Council honored Santino for his work, he didn’t hesitate to speak out and express his gratitude.
“Thank you so much for loving my shirts. I love you all,” he said at the meeting.
Lisa says that he’s a miracle. “For him not to run out of the room— he’s doing things he’s never done before. There’s a light at the end of a tunnel because of education and acceptance.”
Barney has seen how Santino's work is changing the conversation on autism and making the topic much more widespread in their local community.
“I think it’s really helping to spread awareness and the message that children with autism are very capable, but might just need to be supported in more creative ways,” she said.
It’s been an incredible change for the Stagliano family. His progression over just the past few weeks has given them much to look forward to.
“It’s amazing. It gives you hope that the world is good. We spent most of our life arguing with people in store lines because they would stare," Lisa said. “Autism is a sickness you can’t see. He looks like a normal boy and they just think he’s bad. To have strangers want to help, my husband and I wanted to cry tears of joy.”
Santino is finally at a point in which he embodies the characteristics of the dragons he’s always looked up to— embracing his differences and having confidence in what separates him from others.
His transformation has given other parents hope that their young ones will one day, too, find their dragon.