IT is one of the year's must-see television dramas, but without its young star, Guiseley schoolboy Max Vento, The A Word might never have been made.

Six-year-old Max is getting rave reviews as Joe Hughes, a little boy diagnosed with autism, in the BBC1 series which examines the ripple effects of the condition on different generations of a family.

Max was only five when he filmed the series in the Lake District and Manchester last autumn. In what is his first TV role, he joins a stellar cast including Christopher Eccleston, Lee Ingleby and Morven Christie who, along with critics and viewers, have praised his natural performance.

Karen Fawcett, principal of West Yorkshire School of Performing Arts (WYSPA), where Max attends drama classes, said the director knew when he met the talented youngster that he had found Joe.

"We're a casting agency and three WYSPA boys, including Max, went for an audition. Max got a recall, but we didn't know much about the series at the time," said Karen.

"Filming took four months then I went with Max and his parents to a premiere screening of the first episode in London. The director said he knew the show was going to be a success 'because of one word: Max'. He said they had to cast the boy first, before they could cast the other actors. If they hadn't found the right Joe there wouldn't been a show."

She added: "Max takes it in his stride. He had his own trailer on set, and a tutor. I was a children's chaperone on set, as we had eight other WYSPA children in The A Word, and I watched scenes being filmed. Max had to act as if he was in his own world, taking no notice of what was happening around him; he used to say 'I'm doing my day-dreaming face'."

Max, a pupil St Joseph's primary school in Otley, has been learning drama, singing and dance at WYSPA since he was a toddler.

"His sisters are with us and his mum used to bring him along as a baby," said Karen. "One day, when he was little, she asked him to sing to me. Most children of that age would be shy and hide behind their mums, but he just stood and sang beautifully.

"I have a video of his first production with us - the curtain closed but he didn't leave the stage, he was enjoying it too much!"

In the drama, by Bafta-winning writer Peter Bowker, Joe loves music and spends much of his time listening to rock songs on his headphones, singing along to every word. Introduced to music by his father, he memorises every detail about songs, including titles, artists and dates of release.

"Max has an amazing ability to remember songs," said Karen. "His mum put all the songs used in the show on in the car, and she and Max sang along to them. He learned them really quickly.

"The series has become a big talking point. Parents of children with autism are interested to see how it's portrayed and, while every experience is different, many of them can relate to what Joe's family is going through."

* The A Word continues on BBC1 on Tuesday at 9pm.