The Bryan family has relied on OCALI to help support their son Tommy, 15, (top center). Also pictured are Dan (left), Ginny (right), 11-year-old Pierson and Rose, who Tommy picked out when she was a puppy.

Autism. It's a term that leaves many parents feeling lost and unsure of where to turn or what to do.

That was the shocking reality Dan and Ginny Bryan of Columbus faced 12 years ago with their middle son, Tommy.

At the age of 3, Tommy was having meltdowns and wasn't looking at his parents when they were calling him. His vocabulary was limited to a few words, and he wasn't developing at the same rate their older son, Emmett, had. Their first thought was that he might be suffering from hearing loss.

"We took him to a specialist, but they told us Tommy's hearing was fine," Ginny recalled. "They said the next step was to put him in speech therapy."

After two months of speech therapy, the therapist stunned the Bryans by recommending that Tommy see an autism specialist.

"I was so upset, I got in my car and cried," Ginny said. "We didn't know anything about autism at the time. We sawRain Man, the movie, but that was all we knew about autism."

The Bryans had Tommy evaluated at Nationwide Children's Hospital. Within minutes, an autism diagnosis was made.

"It was heartbreaking," Ginny said, "but looking back, I am so thankful to the speech therapist. Early intervention is key."

The Bryans, who live in the Worthington City School District, put together a team to work with Tommy at home and at school. He has made great strides, they said, and they believe his success is due in part to the support and information they found at the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence.

OCALI, located in Clintonville, provides resources and training to families, educators and professionals regarding individuals with autism spectrum disorders as well as other low-incidence disabilities such asorthopedic impairments and traumatic brain injuries. It provides a wide variety of tools, technologies and support designed to improve quality of life.

"What a blessing it is for us to have OCALI in Ohio," Ginny said, "but even more so for me living in Columbus. They are amazing. I have gone to their facility. I have met with the people there in person, and I have used their lending library, which is amazing."

The lending library has more than 3,800 items including books, DVDs, videos, assistive technology devices, kits and assessment tools. For those who can't make it to the library, it can be accessed online. The center will send materials via UPS - for free.

OCALI is a division of the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio, and its services and support are free within the state of Ohio.

"They are so accessible. We've accessed many of their resources and, oftentimes, more than once. They cover a variety of topics and have them broken down by ages and stages," Ginny said.

One of the newer offerings, ASD Strategies in Action, is a free online training and certification program accessible to anyone, anywhere in Ohio. The courses, which started in November, provide practical information and skills to those who interact with individuals with autism spectrum disorders on a personal or professional level. It is offered through the Autism Certification Center, another branch of OCALI.

"We want to help families and practitioners across the state, even in the most rural and suburban areas, by providing them access to this training," said Carly McVey, program co-director at the Autism Certification Center.

"Practitioners want access to more training so they can be more impactful with the individuals they are working with," she said.

Ginny has worked her way through some of the video sessions and is excited about the new program. "OCALI did an amazing job. They used real people, in real-life situations, so you get a true view of these kids and their everyday struggles. You see how they interact with the world around them and the different techniques and strategies that work for them."

Tommy, now 15, has come a long way. His mother said there have been struggles and bumps in the road, but the Bryans are proud of their son and all he has accomplished. Still, they know there is a lot of work ahead of them.

"This is a marathon, a lifelong journey for us," Ginny said. "It's also a team effort, and OCALI has always been there for us."

There is another important lesson the Bryans learned in their journey. "Autism does not define Tommy in our eyes. It's a part of him and it always will be. He is so smart and funny," Ginny said with pride, "but he is not Tommy who has autism. To us, he is just Tommy. And we love him."

For more information about the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence, go to ocali.org or call 866-886-2254.

For more information about ASD Strategies in Action, go to autismcertificationcenter.org.