Over the years, the phrase "I don't know how you do it!" has come up over and over in autism writing as probably the phrase autism parents most dislike hearing. I admit at times it's bothered me a bit too, but lately, I've come to peace with it. It's struck me it's all in how you take hearing it, in what you hear when you hear it. What do I mean by that? Well...
Take it as a compliment When people say the phrase, reword it in your mind as "Wow---you handled that meltdown/screaming/tantrum/obsession/biting/what have you well!" Assume the speaker is truly awed by your ability to deftly navigate the waters of autism.
Take it as a question Think of it worded as "HOW do you do it? Imagine that the speaker is truly wondering how you cope. Use it as an opportunity for education. Fill them in on some strategies you use, what techniques work to calm your child, what respite type services have been helpful, what educational strategies have worked best. Turn them into an advocate by informing them what actually helps and works.
Take it as a confession I think a lot of parents feel, secretly, that if they had had a child with severe special needs, they simply wouldn't have been able to deal with it---that they would have done whatever people do when they simply can't take it. I often let people know that I felt that way too, before actually being faced with special needs parenting. We learn as we go. Despite lovely fables about parents being chosen from above to have a very special child, the truth is none of us are prepared for our special kids. It's a tough on the job training, but I tell people they too would have done just fine if they had been "chosen".
Take it as an offer of help This one can be fun. Say something like "You know, I don't know how I do it either. Thanks for noticing. Yes, I'd LOVE your help. When can you babysit?" Seriously, the phrase can be an opening to admit sometimes we CAN'T do it alone, and we can use any help we can get.
Take it as shock When people are faced with a situation they haven't seen before, one that seems overwhelming to them, they don't always know how to respond. I've most often heard the phrase after Janey has severely melted down, has pulled out all her tricks like ear-piercing screaming and arm biting. People just don't know what to say. I think the phrase often is almost involuntary---a reaction to seeing behavior they have never seen before.
Take it as better than the alternative What if people said instead "I could do that much better than you. I can certainly see how you do it, because it looks very easy. I don't know what the big deal with autism is. It's a piece of cake" I don't think most of us would like that much. In a way, hearing the phrase is a badge of honor. We are doing something tough, and we are being recognized for it.
Take it as a statement of love, for you and your child The truth is, most times I've heard "I don't know how you do it", it was coming from someone who cares about me. They might mean any of the meanings here, but they are saying it because they care. Sometimes it's not the words that really matter, but the thought behind them, and sometimes, as with our kids, we have to read more than plain words to know what is being said. Sometimes, we can answer without words too---just send back a shrug, a smile, a hug, a laugh.
None of us know how we do it. We are like cartoon characters that walk off a cliff. As long as we don't look down, we just keep going. We might be defying the laws of physics, but we are doing it, one way or another.