Ethan Ward, 17, has autism spectrum disorder. Formerly overwhelmed by the challenges that came with it, his education gave him a chance to shine. Erin Kavanagh-Hall reports.

A poster designed for an Oscar-winning Kiwi favourite, an advertising gig, and the creation of an entire extra-terrestrial world with the click of a mouse – Ethan Ward’s creative career is off to a promising start.

Ethan, a Year 13 student at Makoura College, has stunned his teachers and peers with his artistic talents.

From his toolbox full of miniature fighter jets from moulding clay (which he is rarely seen without at school), to his detailed pencil designs for video game characters, to vast alien landscapes worked in Photoshop, his skills and innovation have consistently earned him top marks and several in-school awards.

Ethan’s talent has also given him an early leg-up into the business world, with a Masterton worm farming operation approaching him to design advertisements and promotional materials.

This opportunity gave him the confidence to push his creativity further, with an entry into Sir Peter Jackson’s competition to design a poster for his upcoming film, Mortal Engines – which his teachers describe as a “proud moment”.

Ethan Ward outside Weta Workshops.

Despite Ethan’s exceptional abilities, the 17-year-old, who modestly describes himself as “quite arty”, has come up against several challenges.

He lives with autism spectrum disorder, a neurological condition which affects communication skills and social interaction.

School and academia can be difficult for youngsters with ASD, as they can struggle with interpreting information and instructions, and with reading social cues, resulting in anxiety, confusion and isolation.

Ethan’s challenges had left him apprehensive about the path his life would take after school, mum Wendy Roesler said.

But, thanks to the nurturing and support he has received at Makoura, including access to specialist software and introduction to the world of Weta Workshop, he is dreaming big, hoping to pursue a career in design or animation.

“What he was going to do with his life was a huge concern for Ethan,” Wendy said.

“He was worried he wouldn’t be able to make any money, look after himself and be independent.

“But, he can see now that the paths he is taking as an artist have real meaning, and can lead to a career.

“He’s realised there’s a place in the world for him.”

“I didn’t think I was going to have a career in maths and science,” Ethan said, matter-of-factly.

“I would definitely like to work in the artistic field.”

Ethan’s talent was obvious from a young age – drawing straight lines freehand, and being able to produce near-identical copies of existing drawings, much to his teachers’ amazement.

Producing storyboards was one of the earliest ways he was able to express himself as child – filling “hundreds and hundreds of sketchbooks” with drawings inspired by his favourite TV shows, such as Thunderbirds and Jimmy Neutron.

“I drew a lot of comics as a child – though they were quite primitive,” Ethan said.

“I mostly used felt pens.”

Another of his talents to emerge was sculpting – with him eventually creating his own military aircraft of plasticine fighter jets, all made my hand.

Each day, he brings his collection of planes to class with him inside an old tool box (which his teachers at Makoura encouraged), as handling the models provides comfort in times of stress.

“They’re ridiculously detailed,” Wendy said.

“It’s amazing he can make something so tiny and intricate with his big clodhopper hands.”

Ethan took art as a subject when he started at Makoura College in Year 9, and quickly became proficient in a range of media, including photography, design technology and digital painting.

Wendy credits the teaching Ethan has received at Makoura, particularly from Head of Art Jann Lenihan, with helping him gain confidence in his abilities, and plan for the future.

For his final year at Makoura, the school arranged for him to do solely art-related subjects for NCEA Level 3, allowing him to flourish in his specialist area without distraction (he will continue at college until he achieves the required credits).

To help him develop his skills further, Ms Lenihan sourced digital design programmes from the YouBee School of Design in Wellington for him to use.

The turning point, however, was when the school organised for Ethan to visit and tour Weta Workshop in Wellington.

There, he met David Tremont, a professional sculptor and model maker, who worked on the sets of blockbuster hits such as King Kong, District 9, and Avatar, and was able to view the set and storyboards for the Thunderbirds Are Go! TV series.

“He was staring at the storyboards for ages. That was definitely a lightbulb moment for him,” Wendy said.

“He realised he could make a living doing what he loves.”

At present, Ethan is working on his digital portfolio for NCEA assessment – for which he has created an alien universe, with its own government, ecosystem, flag and humanoid inhabitants.

He lists his biggest inspirations as old school Nintendo video games, the works of HG Wells, and Doctor Who, “especially the Daleks”.

“I’m very much into science fiction – I’m a War of the Worlds kind of dude. I love creating Martian landscapes.

“I enjoy drawing anthropomorphic creatures as well. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’m continuously working on getting their faces right. If I have a creative idea, I may as well make it happen.”

Teacher Ms Lenihan said Ethan has a superb skill in representing images accurately, but has “a great sense of the weird and ridiculous”.

His art has also helped him boost his confidence in social settings.

“When I first met him, he was very insular – he didn’t interact with the other kids at all,” she said.

“But, we’d have discussions in class, and he realised he had something to contribute – so he’d speak up. It helped bring him out of himself.”

Mum Wendy praised Makoura College for its philosophy of inclusiveness, and the staff for “going out of their way” to create a positive environment for her son.

“Ethan has never been bullied or targeted for being different.

“The school has always rallied around him when he’s needed support.”