The family of Trent and Amber Johnston have endeared themselves to the audience since their lives began being chronicled in the reality television series “7 Little Johnstons,” which premiered on 6 January 2015 on the TLC network. Each member of their brood has achondroplasia dwarfism, but it hasn’t deterred any of them from living life to the fullest, despite the challenges they faced due to their genetic disorder. Like any other family, they have their ups and downs, and the public continue to cheer them on as their story unfolds week after week. Its 11th season finished airing on 3 May 2022, and fans couldn’t help but be concerned about the rumors circulating online that the network was about to pull the plug on the TV series.
About the show
How did “7 Little Johnstons” come about”?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Johnstons were invited to appear in the American syndicated daytime talk show “Anderson,” when they featured extraordinary families in its first season in 2011. They called themselves ‘the seven dwarves’ as the family was comprised of seven people having the most common form of dwarfism, achondroplasia. The term itself means ‘without cartilage formation’, and it causes the bone tissue particularly the long bones of the legs and arms not to develop properly, resulting in shorter limbs. People with achondroplasia have short stature – the height of an adult ranges from 4ft 1in to 4ft 4ins, or about 1.3 to 1.5 meters.
Can I please become friends with the family on 7 Little Johnstons? PLEASE? pic.twitter.com/fzJ9JdOXci
— Ashley Rose (@JunoRose) May 24, 2020
The show’s host, Anderson Cooper, thought that the word “dwarf” was politically incorrect, but Amber explained that “dwarf” was a scientific term and “little person” can be used as well when referring to someone like her. However, one should avoid using the word “midget”, as it was considered disrespectful. The family guested on the show to let the world know that they could achieve many things, and be whatever they wanted to be just like any other person, only they had to do it in a different way.
As the characteristic features of their condition include short arms and legs, an average-sized torso, a large head with a prominent forehead, and short and diverging fingers that made their hands appear three-pronged, they naturally attract attention when they were out on the street. People were curious about them, and would stare at them for too long, sometimes even taking pictures or ridiculing them for being different. They would rather people approach them and ask questions rather than treat them like freaks in a circus. Years of being subjected to discrimination and name-calling toughened them up, but people can be very cruel and mean that it still hurts sometimes; the kids were affected most especially.
After their guest appearance, they were inundated with emails from production companies wanting to feature them in a reality TV show, as they were an interesting family, and LMNO Cable Group ended up producing “7 Little Johnstons” for TLC. The Johnstons didn’t have difficulty adjusting to having cameras follow them as they went about their daily lives, remaining true to themselves whether they were being filmed or not. Amber recalled that it was the production team that had a hard time keeping up with her family, as they are quite active and always on the go.
The Johnston couple said that their family was different from other reality stars in that they were not in the business for fame, as their goal was to enlighten the public and rid them of the wrong impression they have on little people, based on myths or on how they were depicted in some fictional film or TV series. Ultimately, it was all about ‘social acceptance’, as they wanted to be seen as human beings, and a regular family. Viewers found them very relatable as they shared their struggles in raising teenagers, and in making a marriage work, just regular everyday things that anybody can relate to. They made mistakes, and were not always at their best, so some people were quick to judge them, but they didn’t let the opinion of others dictate what they would do, or how they would behave.
In filming for the show, the couple trained their kids in treating it as work, as a family business, and that it was something they had to do first before anything else. Perhaps it was a way for them to get their children to engage in some activity, so they could follow a particular storyline. Amber didn’t think growing up in front of the camera had a negative impact on them; on the contrary, the kids learned the value of working hard.
Being in the spotlight
As their lives were documented on TV, people who watched them felt that they knew everything there was to know about the Johnstons. What the audience sometimes failed to realize was that hours or days of footage would go through the editing process to form a certain narrative and be compressed into fitting an episode or two. The scenes that were shown on the screen could be misleading, or open to interpretation; the family had little say in the edited versions shown in episodes
Meet the Johnston family
Trent met Amber at one of the meet-ups organized by the Little People of America (LPA), a non-profit organization providing information and support for people with dwarfism and their families. There was an instant attraction between them, as he said, ‘I saw a gorgeous blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 16-year-old girl’ while she found him to be very attractive, with a funny personality. They became the best of friends, which soon developed into a long-distance relationship for two and a half years, until she matriculated from high school and moved to Georgia to pursue higher education, and to be with him. In November 1998, four years after their first meeting, the two tied the knot in front of more than 300 guests at his home church in Ellenwood.
There was a good chance that their kids would have dwarfism, but it was something they looked forward to. Amber said, ‘Trent always wanted a son like him and obviously I wanted a daughter like me – we thought it would mean we could relate to them much better.’ The couple had two biological kids, Jonah Trent and Elizabeth Renee, both delivered via Caesarean section. Their eldest was a premature baby, and when he was born he wasn’t breathing, and doctors had to revive him. Jonah then spent six weeks at the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) before his parents could bring him home, but had to undergo multiple operations due to his medical issues.
Amber had a difficult and painful pregnancy in 2001 with Elizabeth, as her hips would repeatedly dislocate. At 48 inches tall, her circumference had, at one point, measured at 51 inches, so one could only imagine how hard it was for her.
In adopting children
It was risky for Amber to go through another pregnancy, so she had a tubal ligation during her last C-section. As they wanted more children they turned to adoption. The decision to adopt outside the US was deliberate, as they believed that those with dwarfism had a lower quality of life, and were often put up for adoption, particularly in places where this condition wasn’t understood, much less accepted.
Anna Marie Johnston
They went to Siberia to adopt four-year-old Anna – Amber was a district director of LPA when the Shepherd’s Crook adoption ministry sent an email in March 2004 asking for help in finding a home for a Russian orphan with Achondroplasia Dwarfism. As soon as she and Trent learned about her, they knew in their hearts that this child was theirs. They completed the adoption process in 13 weeks, and in July they brought Anna home to the US; Jonah and Elizabeth were thrilled to meet their new sister.
Alex Joseph Johnston
In December 2005, an agency in Colorado was looking for a family willing to adopt a baby boy from South Korea who had dwarfism. Trent and Amber had been praying for a son to complete their family, as well as Jonah wanting a baby brother. However, in South Korea they were required to pay the fee in full before the adoption process could begin, which posed a problem for them as they didn’t have enough funds. Raising money would take too long, and they were worried about the baby not receiving the proper medical care that he needed at a crucial period. Their pastor called them to say that a couple from their church had written a check for the entire amount – $15,150 – when they heard about their situation. Alex was six-months-old when the Johnston couple brought him home in May 2006 to meet his siblings. When the family received a grant from Show Hope, an organization known for orphan care and adoption advocacy, they returned the money to the couple who helped them with the fees.
Emma Lee Johnston
Trent felt that it was important for the family to adopt another Asian child with dwarfism, so Alex would have a sibling who shared the same physical features as himself, and was closer to his age. In October 2010, they were on their way to China to meet five-year-old Emma from an orphanage in Baoding. This adoption process was more tedious and grueling than their previous experience, but they didn’t mind, as they believed that Emma was a perfect match for them.
Having adopted three kids, some of their friends jokingly referred to them as the “Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of little people.” A single adoption was expensive, more so if you had to go to another country to do it. Also, a child with dwarfism had a lot of health issues, and would therefore require proper care and possibly expensive treatment. The Johnston couple was by no means wealthy, so fans had to wonder how they were able to finance three adoptions. The couple relied on grants, as they refused to take out loans, determined to live within their means. For whatever reason, they also didn’t take advantage of government assistance, despite being eligible for disability benefits.
In raising five children with dwarfism
The couple raised their kids the way their own parents brought them up; Amber grew up as the only little person in her family, but although her parents were supportive of her, she was treated the same way as her siblings. She was the oldest so she was in charge, even if she was the smallest. Trent, on the other hand, belonged to a family comprised entirely of little people, but he said, ‘We didn’t have a ‘Woe is me’ attitude. My parents raised us just like every other parent would raise their child.’
Most houses of little people were modified to make things more convenient and comfortable for them. However, Trent and Amber didn’t want their kids to grow up relying on them too much, so the counters and furniture in their home are of standard height. They believed that coddling them would be detrimental to their growth, and it was important that the kids grow up confident and self-reliant. The couple rarely asked for help from other people, as they preferred to do things on their own. Their children should learn how to find ways and adapt to any situation, so that once they were out in the real world, they wouldn’t be at a loss on what to do. ‘We really want the kids to work out their problems themselves,’ Trent said; they were taught to have ‘realistic expectations about living with dwarfism’, as the world wasn’t built for them.
Cancelation of the TLC series
Networks are not in the habit of announcing their plans for their reality TV shows, so fans constantly worry about the fate of their favorite series.
In 2016, a scandal broke out involving LMNO Cable Group, the company that produced “7 Little Johnstons,” and Discovery Communications, the company that owns TLC on which the show was aired; some thought that the show would be shelved after this. It was said that LMNO confronted an accountant for embezzling money from them, but the latter threatened to inform Discovery about the two sets of books for the six shows that they produced for Discovery, unless he received more money; they refused. When Discovery learned about the incorrect books, they demanded that the footage of the Johnstons, intended for season two, be handed over to them, and they also terminated LMNO as producers of their shows. LMNO filed a lawsuit against them for not honoring their contract, and then Discovery countersued citing fraud – a judge ordered the production company to release the footage to Discovery.
Cancelation rumors of “7 Little Johnstons” spread online after season four only aired six episodes in 2017, but season five aired eight episodes the following year, so it was back on track.
There was some concern with the growing tension between Trent and Amber, with some people fearing that divorce was imminent, and its fans knew that it would mean the end of the show. Dealing with some issues involving their kids had put a strain on their relationship, but Amy said, ‘We know that a relationship, parenting, and marriage is a constant work in progress. With both of us feeling that and knowing that, we don’t give up.’
The pandemic caused anxiety to many due to quarantine restrictions, as it halted TV productions. In the case of the Johnstons, changes had been made, as they had to observe safety protocols, so a lot of planning was involved so they could resume filming.
In 2022, while season 11 was ongoing, Emma’s Q&A on Instagram fueled speculations about the show’s cancelation. A fan asked how many more seasons they could look forward to, and she said that they were filming for 20 episodes, and ‘that was it.’ – she didn’t elaborate, so some assumed the worst. Considering that each season had an average of eight to 10 episodes, one could assume that the TV series only had two more seasons to go. However, fans weren’t giving up hope that what Emma meant was that they would be done filming after that, and then they would rest, but there was still the possibility that it would resume sometime in the future.
Some also believed that the show was nearing its end, based on what happened to Jonas in the “Coming Clean” episode of season 11. Trent and Amber received a disturbing phone call from Jonah, who said that he was scared and didn’t know where he was. His words were slurred as he had apparently taken delta 8, a psychoactive substance found in the Cannabis sativa plant, and that he’d had a bad reaction to it. Trent told Jonah to screenshot a map that would pinpoint his exact location and send it to him. Fortunately, they were able to bring him home safely, and nothing bad happened to him. When Jonah sobered up, he said he would never experiment with the drug again. Delta-8 wasn’t approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and as the show was meant to inspire people, what Jonah did was a cause for concern. Some wondered if his behavior in the show had created an image that would put little people in a negative light, so it might be best for all if the series were to be discontinued.
TLC hasn’t released any statement regarding the airing of season 12, or its cancelation. Its loyal viewers could only hope that the show would continue, as they’d grown so attached to the Johnston family.