City Council honors 10-year-old autistic artist known as ‘The Dragon Master’

It all started in April when Lisa Stagliano, as many parents are wont to do, posted a photograph of her son on Facebook.

It showed her 10-year-old child Santino drawing on a T-shirt, as he was inclined to do on a tough day in a confusing world. “Santino working on his dragon shirts,” Lisa’s post read. “Autism awareness.”

At that point, nobody in the Stagliano family could have known what the next six weeks would bring but today, their lives are markedly different.

The next morning, a handful of people responded with Facebook messages saying they’d like to buy one of Santino’s $5 creations. Fast forward to this week and more than 150 shirts have been sold with orders for 500 more pending.

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During that span, Santino’s Dragon Drawings Inc., a nonprofit through which the youth “custom designs each dragon shirt by hand to raise money for the Center for Autism!” was born.

It’s gotten to the point where Santino, who was diagnosed with autism when he was five, needs “interns” to help supply meet demand in an effort that not only boosts autism awareness but benefits The Center for Autism, the nonprofit which helped him understand his feelings and the world around him.

City Hall honors

On Thursday, Santino’s parents Mario and Lisa couldn’t hold back all their tears when their son was honored with a City Council citation.

According to that citation, which was awarded during a ceremony in City Council’s caucus room, “Santino struggled to communicate and interact with others until he started drawing dragons” on T-shirts.

The moods of those dragons helped him express his emotions that before remained bottled up.

“What Santino is doing is absolutely extraordinary in taking his love of dragons and building [autism] awareness,” said City Councilman at large Dennis O’Brien, a long-time advocate for autism issues. “Santino is expressing to all of us, in a very visible and vibrant way, the challenge that individuals living with autism have, and how they can enrich all of our lives.

“My experience advocating for individuals like Santino has made me a better person, a better legislator and has certainly made me a better dad. It’s taught me that I always have to live gratefully. I celebrate the joy that Mario and Lisa have for their wonderful son who is probably unaware of how much he’s going to be able to do for other individuals living with autism.”

When given the microphone, Santino said, “Thanks for the award, and I’m happy everybody likes my dragons. You all make me feel happy, too. I love you all. Thanks for liking my shirts.”

Brotherly love

After the TV-camera lights dimmed, Santino and his little brother Luciano shot the breeze with NewsWorks for a few minutes.

Among the things they talked about was how lizards named after dragons aren’t really dragons (because, duh, reporter guy, dragons aren’t real) and how they know a 14-year-old who steadfastly maintains Santa Claus is real.

“His favorite dragon is the four-headed one,” said Luciano of Santino.

“Well, a four-headed dragon probably breathes the most fire of all, right?” asked a reporter.

“Not as much as a five-headed dragon!” Santino quickly responded while checking out his City Council citation.

It was the sort of interaction that Santino’s father Mario said his son wouldn’t have engaged in during the pre-Facebook-post era.

What brought tears to Mario’s eyes was the fact that, in such a short amount of time, he’s seen a child emerge from a world of near silence into such dragon-fueled vibrance.

Mario said the first time his son, who struggled to speak until after he was four years old, expressed love for his mother was by drawing a photo of a young dragon with his loving mom. He also noted that Santino now wants to hold young children whereas he’d avoid them in the past.

“All of a sudden, something just clicked for him,” said Mario, noting that playground bullying and struggling to feel “accepted” weighed heavily on his son. “There is hope for every autistic child and their families. This is proof of that. They can fuel the dragon!”

And, you can fuel the dragon too if you’re around this weekend. On Saturday, Santino will be in Roxborough as a featured artist in the first annual “Art is Life” festival. More information about the event is available through the Roxborough Development Corp.’s website.

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