TLC’s reality series 7 Little Johnstons follows one of the most interesting families in America. Trent Johnston and his wife Amber both have Achondroplasia dwarfism. In fact, the couple met at a convention for little people. Three and a half years later, they got married. They have two biological children, Jonah and Elizabeth, who also have the condition. Understanding the challenges associated with dwarfism, they made the decision to adopt three more kids, each of whom has it, as well. Alex is from South Korea, Emma is from China, and Anna is from Russia.
The show follows the clan through their daily activities, giving audiences a glimpse of life with dwarfism. 7 Little Johnstons doesn’t shy away from showing the challenges of being a little person in a world designed for people of normal size. By all accounts, the Johnstons are nice, well-adjusted people. As with any reality TV show, though, there are some behind-the-scenes facts you may find surprising, or even shocking. Some pertain to the program itself, others to the show’s central figures. We lay them all out for you here.
These are 16 Dark Secrets Behind 7 Little Johnstons You Had No Idea About.
16. Serious health issues related to dwarfism
Achondroplasia is the most common form of dwarfism. The signs of it are very recognizable. Those afflicted have a normal-sized torso, but large heads and foreheads, as well as shortened limbs. Abnormal curvature of the spine is also commonly associated with it. The origins of Achondroplasia are genetic, caused by a mutation in the FGFR3 gene. Some research suggests it is the father who is most likely to pass it down.
Having this form of dwarfism brings with it the potential for some critical health issues. For starters, dwarfs in general tend to have shorter life spans, by an average of ten years. Additional potential complications are spinal stenosis, obesity, apnea, and ear infections. People who have Achondroplasia need to be continually monitored or treated for these and other problems.
15. The Johnstons refuse to accept financial help
Ask any adoptive parent and they’ll tell you that the process is wonderful, but also extremely expensive. In addition to placement costs, there are often classes, home studies, legal fees, and more. Adopt internationally, as the Johnstons did, and you can throw travel costs in there, as well. It’s not uncommon for a single adoption to cost $20,000 or more.
Despite the financial output required, Trent and Amber made the commitment to do it without some of the help for adoptive parents that’s available. In an interview with the ABC network, they said that they have refused to take out loans for the process. Citing a desire to live within their means, the couple relied on grants to fund their adoption journeys. They don’t accept government assistance either, despite the fact that their adopted children are technically eligible for disability benefits.
14. The Duggar Scandal helped the show
Because of on-air promotions, there was a certain amount of anticipation for 7 Little Johnstons when it debuted in 2015. Its biggest boost, however, came because of a scandal involving another program.
19 Kids and Counting, featuring the Duggar family, was one of TLC’s top-rated shows. Trouble started when Josh Duggar was accused of abusing five underage girls, four of whom were his own sisters, when he was a teenager. Making matters worse, there was evidence that his father knew about it and didn’t take sufficient measures to rectify the situation or get help for the victims. It also came out that the married Josh had an account on Ashley Madison, a website designed to assist people in having extra-marital affairs.
13. Elizabeth’s birth was traumatic
One of the major reasons the Johnstons chose to adopt is because Amber had an extremely difficult pregnancy with their biological daughter, Elizabeth. Pregnancy can take a toll on a woman’s body under the best of circumstances, but Amber, who is only 48 inches tall to begin with, measured 51 inches around during her pregnancy. That caused a great deal of pain, not the least of which was that her hips repeatedly, agonizingly dislocated.
After Elizabeth was born, Amber and Trent knew that getting pregnant again would not be healthy for her body. They therefore opted to take precautions to ensure this wouldn’t be a possibility. During her C-section, Amber underwent tubal ligation, thereby making another pregnancy impossible. From there, the couple made the decision that further expansion of their family would come through adoption.
12. Fans worry Trent and Amber will get divorced
One of the main draws of any reality show is developing an affection for the people involved. Such emotional connection caused concern for 7 Little Johnstons fans in late 2017.
An episode from the show featured Amber expressing the strong desire to adopt another child with Achondroplasia from China, and Trent acknowledging some uncertainty about it. The issue appeared to raise a bit of tension between them. A sneak preview for the next episode contained a snippet in which a tearful Trent sat the kids down for an “important” talk. Fans grew worried that he and Amber had fallen out over the choice to adopt again and were headed for divorce.
The Johnstons took to Instagram to clarify the matter, saying they have “way too much love to give up on each other.” A hashtag on their picture indicated that the issue was just a plan to sell their house.
11. The family is bullied
There’s an old saying about how people fear things they don’t understand. That’s certainly true of dwarfism. Sadly, dwarfs often face a fair amount of torment and mockery from people who are too small-minded to understand the condition or too uninformed to try.
The Johnstons have repeatedly faced such unkind treatment. One particularly unfortunately example came when Trent and Amber took the kids to Georgia’s Wild Adventures Theme Park. As shown on the program, the family was taunted by kids calling them “midgets,” a word considered derogatory.
Whereas a lot of people would get offended or try to fight back, Trent has a policy of role modeling for his own children. When people show disrespect to him or anyone in the family, he attempts to create a teachable moment, so that they’ll perhaps choose their words more carefully going forward.
10. They couldn’t afford to adopt Alex
There are a lot of parts to the adoption process. Adopting internationally creates even more parts because you’re dealing with governmental red tape and regulations.
When the Johnstons heard about Alex, born with dwarfism in South Korea, they knew he needed to become part of their family. Theoretically, they should have been able to go through the international adoption process as normal. However, South Korea is a little different. The country requires that the entire adoption fee be paid at the beginning, rather than in increments with the largest fee — the placement fee — coming closer to the end.
The Johnstons didn’t have the money and were left with little time to raise the necessary funds, which meant Alex wasn’t getting the healthcare he required. A miracle occurred when a member of their church wrote them a $15,000 check to cover all costs.
9. At risk of being canceled
7 Little Johnstons ran successfully for three seasons before cancellation rumors set in. Season one contained seven episodes, and season two had eleven. Given the jump in number, it would theoretically stand to reason that the third season would be at least eleven episodes, if not more. In truth, it only contained eight. That caused viewers to worry that the show was not going to be renewed by TLC.
Everyone got their wish, and the show did indeed come back in September 2017. That said, the fourth season contained just six episodes — the lowest to date. That has once again fueled speculation that the series’ end may be imminent. As of right now, there’s been no indication that another season is on the way, leaving fans to wonder whether or not they’ll get to follow the further exploits of the family they’ve come to care about.
8. Jonah had serious health issues when he was born
Jonah is the first of the Johnstons’ two biological children. Although he’s a happy teenager, his birth was plagued by severe health problems.
When Amber was pregnant, she underwent genetic testing to see whether the baby would have dwarfism. There were three potential outcomes. He could be normal height, have Achondroplasia Dwarfism like his parents, or be homozygous — i.e. to carry both dwarfism genes — which would be fatal. Happily, that last option was ruled out.
That crisis averted, another took its place. Jonah was born prematurely. He was not breathing, he didn’t cry, and there was none of the spastic motion common with newborns. Doctors were able to revive him, but he spent the first six weeks of his life living in the NICU. Multiple surgeries occurred during his first year to take care of medical issues pertaining to both the prematurity and dwarfism.
7. Amber was mistreated as a child
Having grown up with Achondroplasia Dwarfism themselves, both Amber and Trent understand how hard it can be for their own children to socialize. Although many kids are naturally accepting, there are those out there intent to pick on anyone who is different in some way.
Amber related a particularly hurtful incident from her own childhood to People magazine. When she was fourteen, she and her sister entered a gas station to buy sodas. They were immediately surrounded by a group of teen girls who pointed at her and said “you’re one of them!” The word “them” was emphasized to make her feel like a freak. Amber had to climb up a shelf to get the soda, which made the girls ridicule her even more.
6. The kids can’t use modifications to help them
One of the things Trent and Amber are most insistent on is teaching their children that the world isn’t always an easy place, especially for dwarfs. They feel that coddling them or trying to make things too easy sends the wrong message. For that reason, they have a fairly strict rule against relying too heavily on modifications, even in their own home.
Trent told Clayton State University’s publication The Laker Connection that they want the children to have realistic expectations about living with dwarfism, especially the fact that the world “is not built for you.” Rather than demanding that things be made more convenient, the Johnstons teach the kids to find creative ways to adapt to the world around them, as opposed to expecting everything else to adapt to them.
5. The family only does the show to get social acceptance
We’ve all watched reality programs where you can tell the participants are looking for their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. Trent and Amber Johnston are very different. They aren’t even remotely concerned with fame, except as it pertains to a larger, more noble goal.
The couple told Fox News that their motivation behind starring in a reality TV series is “social acceptance.” They believe that 7 Little Johnstons can educate the public about dwarfism, as well as help erase harmful myths about it. Making this happen is their personal mission.
“We want society to look at us as people — as human beings — and people with differences. Don’t look at us like an object,” Amber told the network. She added, “The biggest stigma in society is that little people are still considered like circus characters.” For them, fame is clearly just a means to an end.
4. The children view the show as a job
7 Little Johnstons is different than many reality shows, in that it doesn’t seek to be exploitative. Trent and Amber have a calling to show dwarfism in a positive light, so that hurtful stereotypes can be erased. Of course, because the adults signed up to have their lives televised, the kids are part of it too.
To ensure their mission of educating the public remains intact, the Johnstons treat production of the show as “a family job.” Everyone is required to do their shift. When one of the children wants to do something else – like, for instance, hang out with friends – they’re reminded that sick days and vacation time must be used sparingly.
3. Adopting Emma required a grueling trek
How committed were the Johnstons to adopting children with dwarfism? Committed enough to make an arduous trek halfway across the globe in order to do it.
In 2010, they decided to adopt Emma, a child born with dwarfism in China. First, they had to fly all the way to Beijing. Once there, the adoptive parents hopped a train for a two-hour ride to the province where she was. They met little Emma the following morning, then spent five days with her in the province. It was an important step in forming important familial bonds.
From there, they all boarded another plane, this one bound for Guangzhou. That’s the city where the paperwork was completed and the adoption was finalized. Finally, they traveled again, once more making a long flight, this time back to their home in the United States. The trip was exhausting, but no doubt worth it.
2. Children with dwarfism often face abandonment
They’re too humble to ever admit it, but what the Johnstons have done is heroic. Being willing to adopt a child with dwarfism is rare. In many countries, children with the affliction — or any sort of disability, for that matter — are often abandoned.
Just look at China, where Emma is from. According to a CNN report, the country had to open up dozens of “baby hatches” — special safe-rooms that are equipped with cribs, heating, and other comforts. This was necessary because the rate of people abandoning disabled children in unsafe places, like city streets and public restrooms, was becoming too high.
There, and in other countries, children born with disabilities like dwarfism are frequently viewed as undesirable. Even if they’re lucky enough to be rescued by authorities, many of them remain in orphanages because few people are willing to adopt them.
1. There was a strange lawsuit regarding the show
To understand the bizarre legal battle over 7 Little Johnstons, you need to understand two things: Discovery Communications is the company that owns TLC, and LMNO Cable Group is the company that produces the show.
In mid-2016, LMNO discovered that a dishonest accountant had embezzled money from them. When they confronted him, he threatened to report their incorrect books — which he himself had falsified — to Discovery unless they paid him even more money. They refused, and he made good on his promise. According to a lawsuit LMNO subsequently filed, Discovery used these knowingly incorrect books as an excuse to dissolve their collaboration and to seize control of footage intended for season two of 7 Little Johnstons. Discovery counter-sued, accusing LMNO of fraudulent accounting.
A judge eventually ruled that Discovery owned the Johnstons footage, and LMNO was forced to turn it over.
What’s your favorite episode of 7 Little Johnstons? Do you think it will return for another season? Sound off with your thoughts in the comments.
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