WINSTON-SALEM — On a picture-perfect North Carolina spring morning, just south of Winston-Salem, Gabby sneaks a mouthful of hay.
The aging American Saddlebred show horse is standing just outside her stall in the Silverlin Farm stable. It’s a shady reprieve from the heat that’s just starting to build in the rolling, overgrown pastures outside the barn door.
Around her feet, a small herd of dirty, happy dogs - runaways and mutts, mostly - languish in the wood shavings that coat the stable floor in thick pillowy mounds.
“Gabby. You want that hay, don’t you?” says Anne Freeman. “You rascal.”
The admonishment isn’t a serious one, as evidenced by the beaming smile on Freeman’s face. She can’t help but smile around Gabby. And it’s no wonder why. There was a time, not so long ago, that Gabby was Freeman’s only friend.
Freeman has Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism that manifests in a way that usually leads to high-functioning individuals who struggle to interact socially. Even more difficult in Freeman’s case is that she went undiagnosed for the first 27 years of her life. She had no friends, parents who loved her fiercely but struggled to connect -- and her horses.
Now, a month shy of her 35th birthday, Freeman’s life is dramatically different. Thanks to a proper diagnosis that’s allowed her to access new services, she’s moved out of her parents’ home into a supportive group home in Lexington, has a best friend and a boyfriend, and volunteers at a food pantry twice a week.
One thing hasn’t changed, though. Freeman still loves her horse.
“I’ll even pass up lunch with my friends to come out and see Gabby,” Freeman said.
That’s a big deal for Freeman. Though she’s 34, mentally she’s still about 14. She’s sweet, cheerful and still a little shy - though she’s grown leaps and bounds in the last five years -- but can be moody and highly possessive, said her mother, Karen Freeman. All are common characteristics of individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Which brings us back to Gabby - the aging show horse.
Karen Freeman, a lifelong horse lover, bought Gabby for herself seven years ago. She thought she would show her for a few years, then sell her, perhaps for another show horse. That was before she saw how her daughter responded to Gabby.
“Anne became very attached,” Karen Freeman said. “She fell in love with her - we both did - and we knew Gabby had a home for life.”
Gabby has since foundered - a condition that affects horses’ hooves and can lead to lameness. She can’t be ridden, but Anne Freeman still visits her once or twice a week. She helps groom Gabby and exercises her in the barn’s small show ring. With horses, Anne Freeman connects in a way that is more difficult with people.
Anne Freeman was born in 1978, when autism still was not well understood. The spectrum was much more narrow then, said Judy Pope, director of the University of North Carolina’s TEACCH Autism Program in Greensboro.
Today, around 1 in 88 American children fall on the autism spectrum, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 10-fold increase in the last 40 years. Research shows this is partly due to increased awareness and improved diagnosis.
“We have broadened the way we look at this diagnosis,” Pope said. “It’s really a processing disorder; it’s the way these individuals process the world, and that’s created more of a spectrum.”
Pope said she sees many cases today that are not classically autistic. Some people wouldn’t have been diagnosed on the spectrum even 10 years ago, she said. Many children are diagnosed at 2 or 3 years old, and most are diagnosed before the age of 10.
For Anne Freeman and her family, it took nearly three decades for someone to recognize the cause of her social and development struggles.
“They said you weren’t autistic if you weren’t like Rain Man,” Karen Freeman said of the popular 1988 movie starring Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant.
Anne Freeman’s differences were less overt. Dozens of specialists over the years said she was just being difficult and needed more discipline.
Karen Freeman said she knew it was something more, but she just didn’t know what. The frustration, the devastation, she said between tears, were unimaginable for 27 years.
Then in 2004 or 2005, one of Karen Freeman’s brothers told his then-girlfriend about Anne.
“She told him that it sounded like Anne had Asperger’s, but when he told me, he couldn’t remember the name,” Karen Freeman said . “He said ‘I can’t remember, but it sounds like asparagus.’ “
Within a few months, Anne Freeman was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and her parents - Karen and Neal Freeman - could at last really help their daughter find what all parents want for their children -- a chance at friendship, fulfillment, stability and happiness.
Karen Freeman said she knew something was different about her daughter from an early age. There was an inherent awkwardness, and Anne rarely talked. It was difficult for her own family members, much less strangers, to relate to her.
Karen Freeman remembers the pain of watching her daughter targeted for endless teasing and taunting.
“She just isolated herself,” Karen Freeman said.
When Anne was in the seventh grade, the Freemans rented out a roller skating rink and invited Anne’s entire class of 30 students.
“There was pizza, everything. All they (her classmates) had to do was show up and skate,” Karen Freeman said.
Three kids showed up that day.
“It was devastating,” Karen Freeman said.
By this point, Anne Freeman had seen endless doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and other specialists. All said she was a bright girl, but needed more discipline.
Her mother tried getting Anne involved in activities and groups. With her awkward movements, gymnastics didn’t work out. She never made friends.
One thing that seemed to click, though - horseback riding.
Karen Freeman, a horse lover herself, started Anne in riding lessons when she was 7.
“She did better at that than anything else,” Karen Freeman said. “She loved the horses.”
When Anne was 11, Karen’s father bought his granddaughter Paper Moon - her first horse.
“Paper Moon was her best friend, her confidante, her babysitter,” Karen said. “It was the best thing we could have done for her.”
When Anne transferred to Oak Hill Academy -- a private boarding school in Virginia for underachieving students -- in the eighth grade, Paper Moon went, too. Anne did well, taking a serious interest in riding and showing.
“It made Paper Moon even more special,” Karen said. “She felt good about herself. I thought, maybe she’ll grow out of it (her struggles).”
But Paper Moon was an older horse, and when Anne was 18, she had to say goodbye - something she still can’t talk about today.
Neal Freeman said he took his daughter to see Paper Moon one last time on their way to Chapel Hill.
“She cried all the way from Asheboro (where he was kept) to Chapel Hill,” Neal said. “We both did.”
Paper Moon died the next day.
He had been a pivotal part of Anne’s development. While at Oak Hill with him - in the highly structured environment of the boarding school - Anne had thrived. After graduation her parents sent her to college, expecting her to continue to grow.
Without someone regulating her movements and schedule, Anne struggled. When no one made her go to class, she didn’t. Instead, she wandered the campus aimlessly. When a counselor showed her how to withdraw from her classes to keep from failing for poor attendance, she said she would take care of it. She didn’t.
“She failed every one of them (classes),” Karen Freeman said.
Anne intercepted and hid the letter the university sent home saying she couldn’t return. Her parents didn’t find out until they took her back to campus for second semester and administrators told them.
Anne moved back in with her parents and took occasional classes at a community college, finally getting an associate’s degree 11 years later. She tried working but got fired more than once. If her shift ended at 3 p.m., she would leave on the dot even if customers were in line or her tasks weren’t finished. She refused to do anything not in her job description, her mother said.
Living at home, without friends or steady work, her daughter couldn’t find any satisfaction or confidence.
“I just wondered, ‘What’s so wrong with me that people don’t like me?’ “ Anne Freeman said. “I’m just going to be who I am, and if people can’t accept that, to heck with them.”
Her mother said, “She’s sweet and caring; people just couldn’t relate. It seemed so unfair. She just wanted what everyone else wants, to be loved and accepted for who she is.”
Finally, Anne Freeman has been able to find these things.
For 4 1/2 years, Anne has lived in the Lanier Home, a group home for intellectually and developmentally disabled women in Lexington. It’s run by UMAR, a nonprofit dedicated to that population. She and the five other women with disabilities live structured lives. Chores are assigned - they take turns cooking, cleaning and tending to their garden. Anne volunteers at a food pantry two days a week.
“We helped 650 people last month,” she said.
The work at the pantry has given her purpose and confidence. Not only is she helping people, but she’s good at it, say her parents. That’s huge for her.
But perhaps even more important - Anne has a best friend.
And when you get them together, it can be hard to get a word in edge-wise between Delia Walker and Anne Freeman. “Deedee,” as her friend calls her, also lives in the Lanier home. The women were two of the first to move in and have been fast friends ever since. They are nearly inseparable.
“Even when Anne comes home for a weekend, Deedee is calling her,” said Karen Freeman with a laugh.
The best friends work together at the pantry and compete together in Special Olympics. They got ready for their first proms together. Walker teases her friend about David, Anne’s first boyfriend. He lives in another UMAR group home.
And Anne still sees Gabby once or twice a week. Her days are full, she said.
Working with UMAR has been a sea change for Anne’s parents, too. Karen and Neal Freeman both said they worried constantly about what would become of Anne when they are gone. They don’t have to worry anymore.
“This is a whole world for this child, and it all fell into place, finally.”