By Dan Wing
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – An autistic boy from South Philadelphia is uniting his neighborhood through his love of drawing dragons, while also helping raise awareness about Autism.READ MORE: Mayor Jim Kenney Will Have Procedure To Treat Irregular Heartbeat
Ten-year old Santino Stagliano was diagnosed with Autism at age five, and like many others on the spectrum, he’s struggled to express himself or enjoy some things other children take for granted — like birthday parties, going out to eat, or even just a hug from a loved one. It’s not because he doesn’t like those things, but because they’re hard for him to do.
“When they go into a room and see a lot of people, it looks like everyone is coming at them, and it can drive them mad,” explains Santino’s mother, Lisa. “They don’t have eye contact, because when they look at your face it actually looks like pixels from a TV coming together and it takes him awhile to focus on your face so they look away because it actually hurts them.”
But that’s starting to change. Santino has always loved drawing dragons, but after a particularly tough day in mid-April, his mother took a picture of him drawing one on a shirt and posted it to Facebook with a simple caption: “Santino working on his dragon shirts….autism awareness.”
Shortly after, the photo went viral, and people were making requests to buy those shirts. Lisa and Santino agreed to sell them for $5 each, and nine orders turned into 50, 50 into 100, and since then a steady stream has poured in from as far away as Seattle, Minnesota and even overseas from Ireland.
At Santino’s request, half of the money raised will be given to the Center for Autism.
While that gesture is more than enough to make a mother proud, Lisa says even more important is the fact that it’s helped bring Santino out of his shell:
“He started to talk to people, and he started to ask about people’s feelings, which he’s never done before.”
Santino even designed a special dragon shirt for cancer patients at CHOP, which features a dragon with a tear in its eye — one way for Santino to express his feelings for those children.
The Staglianos say Santino’s dragons have brought their ‘Two Street’ neighborhood together with neighbors, police officers, mummers, bikers, fire fighters and even longshoremen wearing shirts, and donating supplies so he can make more.READ MORE: 15-Year-Old Shot In Arm Near Temple's Campus
“And these are clubs that are rivals that all came together for this little boy,” says Santino’s father, Mario. “It’s so touching.”
Bethany Barney is lead outpatient therapist at the Center for Autism who has worked with Santino and his family over the years. She says stories like his aren’t all that uncommon:
“What’s happened with Santino is he’s really learned some ways to cope with the struggles that he’s having, and he’s found a way to connect and communicate with people around one of his interests which can be quite common for people on the spectrum.”
The shirts are also giving other parents with Autistic children a sense of hope that one day their child will have a breakthrough of their own.
“Me and my husband have heard from hundreds of Autistic parents, and some of them have even brought their children to our house,” says Lisa. “And they just keep saying that we hope our kid finds their dragon, and I really do because this is amazing.”
While admitting it’s not an easy job to do, Lisa says parents just need to stick with it:
“Keep pushing. Keep knocking on that door, and they’ll answer because he did. He’s answering it now, he’s facing it. Because of a dragon shirt.”
Barney also had this advice for parents:
“It can be very helpful to make sure that you get a support system in place. So finding a therapist that can really help work with your family, finding a recreational opportunity for your child to be able to connect with other children, finding supportive teachers at the school, because our kids are going to face more challenges than some other ones and it’s really helpful to have more people on your team.”MORE NEWS: New Jersey 'On The Backside Of Omicron,' But New Concern Grows About Children Getting Severely Sick With COVID-19
The Staglianos now spend most of their days busy in the living room helping Santino make his shirts, which can be ordered through his Facebook page “Santino’s Dragon Drawings Inc.”