Nice read, squishy nut graf

Religion News Service has an interesting trend piece, via The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., on growing acceptance of autistic children in church. Having reported myself on the topic -- and having witnessed the tears of parents whose special-needs children were rejected at church -- I was pleased to see the story.

On the positive side, the report is filled with compelling anecdotes and the kind of shoe-leather details that characterize the best newspaper writing.

The top of the story:

CALDWELL, N.J. (RNS) Halfway through a Mass in Caldwell College's campus chapel, Chase Keith rose to his feet for one of the most challenging parts of a challenging day.

It required the boy from Basking Ridge, N.J., to offer his hand to strangers in the traditional sign of peace. With his mother whispering in his ear and guiding his arm, the 7-year-old stuck out his small hand toward a fellow parishioner.

"How you? Peace," Chase said.

Afterward, his mother slipped him a Goldfish cracker as a reward for his correct behavior. Chase had gone through months of intensive training with a specialist to get to this point -- where he could sit through a Catholic Mass with his family.

My major concern with the story, however, relates to the nut graf. Honk if this approach sounds familiar:

Chase, who has autism, is among a growing number of children with developmental disabilities who are being welcomed at religious services.

Autism is particularly acute in New Jersey, which has the nation's highest rate of autism, affecting about one in every 94 children, compared to the national rate of about one in every 150 children.

That's a great summary of the story -- a terrific news peg -- if it's true. If.

Where is the attribution for the claim that a growing number of children with developmental disabilities are being welcomed at religious services? Is the source a survey? An expert? The reporter's own observations? The story never says. And the story also never provides any concrete data to back up the claim.

No reason is given, either, for New Jersey's high rate of autism. Why exactly does that state have so many more cases of autism than other places?

The other thing that struck me about the story is that it reports entirely on Masses at Roman Catholic churches, yet makes broad statements about churches in general. The story moves from reporting exclusively on Catholic churches to this graf:

Other religions have also made efforts to be more inclusive of children with developmental disabilities, though the programs are usually local and not well-known, advocates say. Some synagogues have programs to help children with autism make their bar or bat mitzvah.

Who are those advocates? The story doesn't say.

This piece is a nice read but suffers from a lack of concrete information to back up its thesis.

Image: Children involved with a ministry for special needs at a North Carolina church.

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