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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A young dragon master quietly dwells in one of the redbrick rowhouses of South Philadelphia.
The dragon master was born with superhuman hearing and with special vision, for when he sees objects, he sees them like puzzle pieces, not as other little 10-year-old boys do.
He's never felt like other little boys, either. He finds it difficult to look people in the eye, he doesn't like it when others sing him "Happy Birthday" and he never understood the point of hugs.
But he's always understood dragons.
In the past few weeks, something magical has happened in the young master's "Two Street" village that has brought him out of his cave: The villagers have discovered his dragons and the young master has discovered his place in the village.
Santino Stagliano — or "The Dragon Master," as his little brother calls him — was diagnosed with autism at age 5.
When Santino, now 10, has a bad day, his parents, Mario and Lisa, buy him a plain, white T-shirt and allow him to draw his favorite creature — a dragon — on it with markers.
April 12 was just such a bad day. Santino had been teased by kids and got into a fight at the park.
"We said, 'Let's go get some shirts,' because it always made him feel better and he expresses himself through dragons," Lisa said.
In fact, the first time Lisa said Santino expressed his love for her was when he drew a mother dragon holding its baby.
Bethany Barney, Santino's outpatient therapist at the Center for Autism, said it's much easier for some children on the autism spectrum to express themselves through art.
"For Santino, it was easier for him to talk about feelings by drawing dragons with those feelings," Barney said.
On April 14, during Autism Awareness Month, Santino's mom, Lisa, posted a picture to Facebook of her son creating one of his dragon shirts with a simple caption: "Santino working on his dragon shirts . . . autism awareness."
The next day, Lisa had requests from nine people asking if they could buy a Santino dragon shirt. So he created them and sold them for $5 each, a price he set.
Nine shirts quickly turned into 50, and 50 turned into 100.
Lisa estimates that at least 150 shirts have already been sold and there's an additional 500 on order - with some orders coming from as far away as Minnesota and Illinois.
"My friends and neighbors would wear them and put them on Facebook and everybody shared. Now, all of a sudden, it's exploded!" Lisa said. "This isn't just my small group, this is people from all over South Philly."
Santino decided to donate half of his money to the Center for Autism, a nonprofit that Lisa said has changed her son's life by teaching him how to communicate his feelings, problem-solve and understand social cues.
"I don't want to be the only one who gets the money," Santino said of why he chose to donate his proceeds. "I want to help other kids with autism."
Those near and far from the Staglianos' home on Wolf Street near 3rd in South Philadelphia, a section of the city that Lisa refers to as "Two Street," have donated hundreds of markers and shirts to Santino.
"You see this kid with the hat, he's out of work," Mario Santino said last week, pointing to a young man among the neighbors and friends who'd gathered at the family's home. "He's out of work six months, but he came here yesterday with five dozen shirts."
A local sporting-goods store also donated dozens of shirts.
Michael Anthony Troiano, a doctor with a South Philly practice, has offered to match the money Santino donates to the Center for Autism.
"I have the pleasure of living in South Philadelphia and seeing the community come together, not just for wonderful things like this but for tragic things, as well," Troiano said. "I'm doing this to give back to those who have given me so much and to let (Santino) know he's not in this alone."
Santino, who is one of seven children, has enlisted the help of his siblings who still live at home, his parents and neighborhood kids to aid on the dragon-shirt production line. Santino still draws each unique dragon by hand but his "interns," as he refers to them, do most of the coloring now.
Santino wanted interns who work for the experience and not the money, "because I don't want some of my money gone because I wanted to donate it to the center," he said.
One of Santino's interns is his best friend, Madison Stinsman. For a long time, Madison was Santino's only friend. She'd get into fights trying to protect her buddy from other kids who didn't understand him, Lisa said.
Madison, 10, was the first person to ever receive a Santino dragon shirt, many years ago. She still wears her retro black-and-white version, even though everyone else's shirt is in Technicolor now.
When asked what her best friend has had to go through in his struggle with autism, Madison sobbed. Lisa pulled the girl close to her chest.
"He just says, 'Mom, Madison understand me,'" Lisa said. "You know the movie 'Forrest Gump'? Forrest and Jenny, that's my best comparison for these two. She just gets him."
Madison said she's seen a real change in her best friend since his dragon shirts have taken off.
"I mean, it's just amazing," she said. "He's coming out of his shell now."
Barney, Santino's therapist, said she's seen a change, too.
"I think it's increasing his self-esteem and his confidence and really showing him he is capable of doing things for others and engaging people and having a really positive experience," Barney said.
But nobody is more moved than Lisa and Mario, a classic South Philly couple who invoke "youse" often, who are always worried about whether their guests are thirsty and who can't stop crying when they talk about what their "village" has done for their son.
"There's a little boy who wouldn't look at you, he didn't want to be touched," said Mario, 62. "Now he's hugging people, high-fiving and taking pictures."
Lisa, 42, said it's been a big change for a kid who came home most of his life upset.
"He'd ask us: 'Why can't I be like other kids? Why can't I do this? Why do I feel this way?'" Lisa said. "This is the first time in a long time we didn't have to boost him up. He's proud of himself.
"I think he's thinking it's pretty cool to be different now and I love that," she said. "He's not sad to be autistic now. He's proud."
Lisa said the most moving messages she's received from strangers are from those who have a loved one struggling with autism.
"People are telling us that we're giving them hope," she said.
There's one Santino dragon-shirt story that stands out above all the others.
Tracey Wojnar is a pediatric nurse who works with cancer patients at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She was walking down the street on her way home from work the other night when she saw Santino and Lisa out delivering dragon shirts.
Wojnar, 44, told Lisa and Santino that she wanted to order one.
"It's all over Facebook," Wojnar said of her desire for a Santino dragon shirt. "I wanted to be a part of this great thing, of the community coming together."
When Lisa and Santino got home, Santino asked why Wojnar was wearing hospital scrubs. Lisa told her son it's because Wojnar works with kids who have cancer.
"He immediately drew a dragon that was a nurse and he drew a tear in her eye," Lisa said. "I said, 'What's the tear for?' and he said, 'For the cancer kids.' "
Wojnar, who had figured she'd have to wait weeks for her shirt, was "overwhelmed" when Lisa brought it over that night.
"When she was telling me (why the dragon had a tear), I had tears in my eyes and she had tears in her eyes," Wojnar said. "Lisa said: 'I can't believe my son has opened up this way. He's happy, he hugs people and he feels he wants to cry for what you do.' "
Barney said, "It showed so much progress in Santino for recognizing other people's feelings."
None of it would have been possible without her South Philly village, Lisa said.
"These people are amazing. These people in this community did this," she said. "I knew (Santino) would shine eventually. I just didn't think it would be this soon."
Information from: The Philadelphia Daily News, http://www.philly.com
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