For teens with Down syndrome, a night out without their parents is almost unheard of.

That's why the The Down Syndrome Association of the Brazos Valley offers etiquette classes that take the children out to nice restaurants and theaters without their folks.

"Without the expectation of a parent, it gives [the children] the opportunity to make these decisions themselves that this is how you act in public regardless of whether a parent is there or not," said Rose Schmitz, president of the local nonprofit group, working to support people with Down syndrome and their families.

The organization hosts classes for children and adults with Down syndrome throughout the year, including computer, math, reading, cooking, fitness and handwriting, to supplement lessons learned in school and help them gain life skills.

Class openings for people with disabilities between the ages of 5 and 21 were announced Saturday. A handwriting class is set to start Monday from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. The class will meet once a week until March 3. A beginning cooking class is scheduled for one Saturday morning per month between February and November, where students learn hygiene, measurements and follow simple recipes.

Each course offered through the Down Syndrome Association is taught by a certified public school teacher who customizes lesson plans for each of the 10 to 12 students in the class. Teachers receive stipends for customizing lessons for each individual and volunteers work one-on-one with the students, Schmitz said.

About 6,000 babies are born with Down syndrome in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While babies are typically born with 46 chromosomes, those with Down syndrome have a third copy of the 21st chromosome, which can cause mental and physical disabilities. "The level that they are affected by the third chromosome varies, so our goal is just to help them become as independent as possible by exposing them to as many experiences that they can," Schmitz said.

Schmitz's own teenage son has benefited from the environment at the organization's facility, where each child is greeted with open arms, she said.

"Besides the educational value, he is with kids that he can be himself with," Schmitz said of her son's experience at the Down Syndrome Association. "Even though we like him to be among all of the regular population, I think he feels freer ... it makes him feel like he's the same."

For more information about the classes, email dsabv@dsabv.org or call 979-778-7010.

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